The comment was unexpected; R.E.M.'s decade-plus track record surely justified Cobain's praise, but their musical vision and his seemed so different. Cobain wore his heart on his sleeve, wrapping... Read More
his often angry ruminations in swirls of guitar feedback and distortion. R.E.M.'s music has rarely screamed to make its point and has often seemed deliberately ambiguous. The intricate clarity of their arrangements has been tasteful to a fault.
But now all this is in the past and not just because of Cobain's sad demise. It's too bad he didn't live to hear Monster. If the new album isn't exactly a sonic grungefest, it comes a hell of a lot closer than anyone could have anticipated. Imagine earlier R.E.M. favorites like "Ignoreland" or "Radio Song" stripped of acoustic guitars, their lapidary, almost fussily pristine arrangements reduced to slabs of electric-guitar noise and power-chord riffing, and you're only beginning to get the picture. Gone are the manicured interweavings of strings, mandolins and other acoustic instruments, gone the pinpoint definition of instrumental and vocal parts that have characterized so many of R.E.M.'s recorded performances for so long. The two or three softer tunes that might not have sounded out of place on previous outings are pointedly sandwiched in the middle of the disc, surrounded by the sizzle of overdriven amps, snarling distortion and aggressive rhythms. Michael Stipe's singing, so difficult to decipher on early records, so plainspoken and out in front of the mixes since Green, has slipped back into the sonic murk, where it fights to be heard.
Don't misunderstand: R.E.M.'s exceptional pop craftsmanship, their luminous melodic inventions, their sense of mission in short, everything fundamental are still there and shining more brightly than ever. What has been jettisoned, at least this time out, is all that tasteful restraint. Monster is one urgent-sounding album, and that's as it should be; what the band has to say here is urgent, politesse be damned. Monster is concerned, in song after song, with problems of identity. It explores how important having a stable sense of one's own identity can be and how up for grabs identities have become in our postmodern media hothouse, where it's possible to slip on a new persona as easily as a new look and couture can mean anything from Paris fashions to body piercing to a sex change. The concept of reality itself is being called into question: Is this my life or an incredible virtual simulation?
Clearly these issues are of more than academic interest to Stipe, who has ar