by Phil Scarisbrick
The year is 1994. A generation of Tory rule in the UK was disintegrating, while in the White House, cigars were being used for a whole new purpose. The Iron Curtain had fallen, and the brinkmanship of the Cold War fell away to give relative peace between the West and East for the first time since the before the Second World War. Nelson Mandela was free and now leading the country that had labelled him a terrorist for decades. It was a time when change was inevitable, but rather than being primarily fuelled by anger as is often the case, political populism was wholly more positive across the globe.
Culturally, this positivity was seeping through – the grunge music that had momentarily changed the world with its anger, vulnerability and vitriol burning out as quickly as it had ignited. Britpop exploded, evoking all the bombast and hope that was developing. One band who straddled the transition from the old and new were also one that could never really be pigeon-holed into any specific movement. REM had released two hugely successful albums already in the nineties, with 1991’s Out Of Time propelling the band from cult indie rock favourites to chart-topping international stars. Backing this up the following year with the iconic Automatic For The People only solidified their status, and made the stakes even higher for what would be their ninth studio album.
‘What’s the frequency, Kenneth?’ are the opening four words we hear on a record that sees the band tackle subjects with all the weight of grunge, but channelled through the irreverence and fun instilled in Britpop, yet managing to sound like something completely unique of itself. This opening track, named for its first line, epitomises this transition. It sees Michael Stipe play a protagonist who is desperate to find out how the younger generation are motivated, and spends an inordinate amount of time in this pursuit before realising that it was all futile. The fading of old into the new, and former’s inability to understand its successor, is a folly that has hampered artistic and political careers alike, and is something that was acutely under the microscope at this time.
The tremolo-heavy, trashy guitar sound that drives Kenneth courses through the whole record, with the following song – Thurston Moore-featuring Crush with Eyeliner – stepping it up even further. The New York Dolls inspired lyrics were some of the first to be written by Stipe after a bout of writer’s block had curtailed the album’s development. Following the tragically early deaths of two of his best friends, Stipe was struggling to function in any way, let alone creatively. River Phoenix was seen as one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars, yet succumbed to the clichéd excess of the town, dying of a drug overdose at the infamous Viper Room night club at the pitifully young age of twenty three. Kurt Cobain was the face of grunge, but had also struggled with fame and substance misuse, leading him to take his own life and sit among the other members of the notorious ‘Twenty Seven Club’.
The impact of these two stars’ demises reverberates throughout the record. Let Me In sees Stipe confront his feelings about Cobain’s death head on, with an unwarranted feeling of guilt encapsulated as he sings, ‘I had a mind to try and stop you’. He had been aware of his friend’s suicidal thoughts, but in the end could not stop him following through with them. Bang and Blame, the album’s second single, features Phoenix’s sister, Rain, on backing vocals. The delay-drenched electric guitar blends with a driving bass line in the verses before exploding into a chorus that sounds like an exacerbated cry of the song’s title repeated by the two vocalists. It ended up being the band’s most successful single since Out of Time’s Shiny Happy People.
The move away from the acoustic-based instruments that had inspired the band’s meteoric rise was a ballsy, but necessary one. The raw, punk sound that they used perfectly accompanied the themes that Stipe was writing about, but also gave an overall feeling of fun and escapism to juxtapose them. Circus Envy sounds like it could have been birthed in the glam rock era of the early seventies, but doesn’t quite mask the anger and anxiety of our narrator. A tight rope walker in a carnival, performing daring and death-defying feats being diminished into nothing more than a side-show by a world that doesn’t understand the spectacle and inherent danger. This thinly-veiled metaphor lets us inside Stipe’s fragile psyche, as he has grown weary of what he cynically supposed to be for his audience. Some at the time saw this as just being your typical rock star moaning about fame, and not appreciating the positives that success brings. Given what happened to his two friends though, it was important for Stipe to be candid about the realities of stardom, even if it may fall on deaf ears.
It is hard to measure a record’s success on any one factor. Many albums perform brilliantly from a commercial standpoint, but are instantly forgettable, while there are some all time great records that made little to no impact in this regard, but are cherished for decades after. Monster was both a commercial success – going straight in at the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic – and a great artistic achievement. Perhaps its most enduring success though was as a vehicle for Stipe to tackle his own issues with identity, and to sit at the precipice of a cultural sea change. While it doesn’t contain a myriad of hits like its two predecessors, it feels like the inevitable release needed after the build up of pressure those records created. The candour with which he was able to write, even when masked under the identity of another character, means that although there isn’t a specific conceptual unity as such, what binds it together is an artistic progression of both the band as musicians, and Stipe as a lyricist.
So while the world around them bristled with positivity, and seemed to be trying to move towards some sort of unobtainable euphoria, REM stayed grounded in the reality of the human condition. That change is complex, and even the most joyful of exteriors can be accompanied by an inner turmoil. In this regard, Monster is an absolute triumph.
Secret Meeting score: 88