Remember the early days of R.E.M., when its records were murky, the lyrics obscured in a blur of strummed guitars and driving percussion, and the music did the rock thing but in a slightly off-kilter way? When there was no such thing as MTV’s Alternative Nation, much less the ever-meaningless term ”alternative rock”?
Apparently, R.E.M. does, or wants to. On its 11th — man, how time flies — album, Monster (Warner Bros.), the band plugs back in after two relatively subdued, largely acoustic albums (the filler-packed Out of Time and the almost churchly Automatic for the People) that touched on every sonic possibility except the jingle-jangle hymns of its first records. Younger bands who were probably in high school when R.E.M. debuted continue to demonstrate the major role Michael Stipe has played in their lives, but Monster proves no one cranks the amplifiers and mumbles lyrics in quite the same thrilling way as the originators.
Start with ”Let Me In,” Stipe’s contribution to the slowly growing genre of songs about Kurt Cobain. As Peter Buck’s guitars splay around like paint splattering all over a wall, Stipe obliquely mourns his lost friend, with whom he had had a few discussions about a future collaboration. Stipe’s pleading wail on the chorus — a simple ”Hey, let me in” that drifts into a wistful falsetto during ”hey” — is a moving catharsis of the type that clone bands like Stone Temple Pilots never remotely approach. Songs like ”Crush With Eyeliner,” and the organ-dotted ”I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” are the sort of transcendent murk that made this band founding fathers of college-kid rock to begin with. And, as in the old days, it takes time to get to know the record. You’ll probably need to absorb it at least three or four times before it starts to - make sense-just like with Fables of the Reconstruction, right?
That’s roughly where the connection with the past ends. Almost from the git-go, R.E.M.’s music was nearly spiritual; at its most exhilarating and hopeful, it made you feel as if you could reach up and grab a cloud. With Peter Buck riding the reverb pedal and creating pulsating waves that sound like a huge, amplified blood-pressure vise, Monster returns the power surge to the band’s music. But sometimes the old uplift isn’t there-Bill Berry’s drums have rarely sounded this ineffectual. Elsewhere, ”Strange Currencies” is a lazy rewrite of ”Everybody Hurts,” ”Circus Envy” achieves the dubious distinction of sounding like one of their rip-off bands, and the album’s plodding first single, ”What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (named after the mysterious words of a man who attacked Dan Rather on the streets of New York City in 1986), is a rather tired anti-press diatribe.
At least, media manipulation is what the song seems to be about. In another nod to the days when R.E.M. played small theaters instead of arenas, Stipe’s voice-even when it isn’t made to sound as if he’s singing with his head in a sink full of water-is buried in the mix. In the past, half the fun came in deciphering the snippets of lyrics yourself. But what distinguished the band’s previous two albums wasn’t just the sense of musically cleaning house; it was simple enunciation. For once, the band-Stipe in particular-wasn’t afraid to directly express emotions, which is tricky for most human beings under the best of circumstances.
Frustratingly, you rarely get the full picture here. From what bits of lyrics creep out, the series of pleas, whispers, come-ons, exhortations, and accusations that dominate Monster are some of Stipe’s most visceral. The songs hint at obsessive love, possibly with a transvestite (”Crush With Eyeliner”), the frustration of trying to get to know a lover (”Strange Currencies”), and, for what may be the first time for this lyrically celibate band, blatant sex (”Tongue”). It’s ironic that an album that seems to dwell so much on communication and misinterpretation often obscures its own communiques with sonic gunk. Monster reminds you how charged a band R.E.M. can be, but receiving only half its message is like having an intensely personal, confessional phone conversation with a friend on a cellular phone that keeps cutting in and out. B+