In which Bill, Peter, Mike and Michael conclusively kick out the ghosts that rattled round the sublime-but-you-knew-that "Out Of Time" and "Automatic For The People" and get back to being a noisy garage band that plays stadiums, just like they were circa "Green". That's the theory, anyway: "Monster" is the difficult, alienating album that "AFTP" was rumoured to be before its release; unfortunately, it's also only half as good as the concept sounds.
"I'm not your Television, I'm not your Magazine", sings Michael at one point, and "I don't want to be Iggy Pop" at another. That's the crux of "Monster"'s problem: it spends twelve tracks trying very hard to be Television, Iggy Pop, Talking Heads, Patti Smith and about a million other New York new-wavers. This wouldn't be so disturbing from any other group, but from R.E.M.? The best band in the world?
Think about it: when have R.E.M. ever reminded you of another band? (The Velvet Underground doesn't count in such odious comparison's, 'cos everybody has wanted to be them at some time or another!). Right from 1982's "Chronic Town" they've always sounded like no-one else, yet although they've got their different personalities (i.e. the noisy, distorted ones and the quiet, introspective ones) all their albums sound like R.E.M. Apart from this one.
"What's The Frequency, Kenneth?", the opener and first single, is the kernel of a great song: apparently describing the inability of the eponymous Kenneth to understand yoof culcha (not that you can tell from Stipe's garbled "Ignoreland"-style delivery), it reminds me of The Sweet for some strange reason! Still, pretty wonderful, and it sticks out like Don McLean's thumb amidst the dross that Radio 1 play during the afternoons.The problems begin with track two, "Crush With Eyeliner", which apparently features Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore (although what he actually does isn't disclosed): it's "Berlin"-era Lou Reed with all the harrowing bits taken out, and "King Of Comedy" sounds like an early Talking Heads outtake. A run of goodies follows: "Star 69" is upbeat, vibrant and doesn't self-consciously sound like anyone else; "Strange Currencies" is "Everybody Hurts" with a bad cold and feedback - nevertheless it's the best track on the album; Stipe's vocals sound real for once, and not like some horrible glam-rock parody. "Tongue" is what is called in modern parlance the 'chill-out' track, very mellow and keyboard-y (digression: The 'chill out' track on Underworld's terrific genre-hopping debut album "Dubnobasswithmyheadman" was also called "Tongue" and was notable for using guitars instead of synths), but tripped back into the land of parody by Michael's falsetto vocal. (Who does he think he is? Prince?). "Bang And Blame", the new(er) single, follows, which is alright but, like a lot of the tracks, a bit unadventurous melodically. "Let Me In" is the now-obligatory Kurt tribute: it beats the previous genre-best, Neil Young's "Sleeps With Angels", by a country mile, as Michael emotes over some very grubby guitars. The last track, "You", is the also-now-obligatory covert Kurt tribute, which falls sadly short of the standards of the genre (i.e. Neil Young's "Change Your Mind") - in fact I find it unlistenable at times, certainly the most jarring and discordant song they've ever written.
"Monster" isn't a bad album - it's far too inventive and challenging. What it also isn't, however, is an R.E.M. album - it really doesn't fit anywhere in the eclectic genre they've created. Course, my carping means diddley squat in the scheme of things, but no matter how many millions this goes on to sell, I really don't think I'll ever whole-heartedly enjoy it. As the man himself sings at one point, "Nice try". But...
R.E.M. New Adventures In Hi-Fi (Warner Bros.)
But is it worth $80 million?! If R.E.M. continue on this defiantly anti-commercial trajectory (but then again, when have they been on anything else?) heads may be rolling at Polymer Records. But not just yet..."New Adventures In Hi-Fi", R.E.M.s tenth, and lengthiest, studio album (technically, although parts of it were recorded during soundchecks, dressing rooms and concerts during the "Monster" tour), is, partially at least, a blessed relief after 1994s dumb grungefest "Monster". Enough of the fourteen tracks are touched with the mandolin-strumming hand of genius (well, only one of em actually has a mandolin on it, but you get the drift) that made "Out Of Time" and "Automatic For The People" such essential, life-enhancing works. Opener "How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us" is a bizarre folk-reggae piece: "The story is a sad one told many times", incants Michael Stipe, sounding like hes a hundred years old. On "New Test Leper" hes cast as a reluctant evangelist, bringing Bible quotes to a talk show ("When I tried to tell my story/They cut me off to take a break/I sat silent five commercials/I had nothing left to say"). Youll have heard the superb, ghostly first single "E-Bow The Letter", with Patti Smiths half-angel half-vulture accompanying vocals and riff nicked from T. Rexs "Cosmic Dancer" (a band who also get namechecked on "The Wake-Up Bomb"); "Electrolite" closes the album in fine style, with Michael chewing up and spitting out Hollywood cliché after Hollywood cliché, set to a gorgeous guiro-powered ("the ultimate in musical usefulness", say the sleevenotes). Thats the great bits; winning the accolade of good are "Leave" (the favourite of everybody else whos heard the album, it seems, and probably R.E.M.s longest song yet at over seven minutes duration), if only for its moody acoustic introduction, the tour bus bravado of "Departure" that follows it, the blatant plea of "Be Mine", and "So Fast So Numb". The not-so-good bits are the unmemorably formulaic reheated "Monster" left-overs such as "Undertow", "Binky The Doormat" and "Low Desert", the latter wrapping up everything thats characteristic about R.E.M. in one dire track, as opposed to the old fave "Driver 8" that still remains their benchmark look at how much atmosphere we can generate in three minutes tune.
On balance, I like "New Adventures In Hi-Fi", but, difficult and uncompromising as it is, itll undoubtedly alienate a fair proportion of their 90s following, probably intentionally. Perhaps next time well get something truly adventurous.
R.E.M. Up (Warner Bros.)
Given that drummer loss amongst top American rock bands has reached almost Tap-like proportions recently, it might be instructive to draw comparisons between "Up" and the new Smashing Pumpkins album. Both show their protagonists moving towards a more electronic sound, with, not unexpectedly under the circumstances, a heavy reliance on both drum machines and songs without any drumming at all. Both show bands moving into new, unfamiliar territory, but in R.E.Ms case it seems like theyve landed in somewhere thats already been colonised by someone else. For possibly the first time in their 18 year history, R.E.M. seem to be followers, rather than leaders.
The fact that Michael Stipe is mates with Thom Yorke hangs heavy over "Up", because this album betrays a, how can I say it, strong Radiohead influence. Read the lyrics, which are printed for the first time on an R.E.M. album. Observe the way the slow-moving electronica of opening track "Airportman" sounds like its fallen off Radioheads "Airbag/How Am I Driving?" mini-album. Note the mixing involvement of "OK Computer" producer Nigel Godrich, possibly the hottest control-room property since Eno and Lanois (hes worked on the new Beck album and forthcoming Pavement material as well). And, as an aside, note that R.E.M. employed the services of veteran pedal steel guitarist B J Cole for their "Later With Jools Holland" appearance, only three months after The Verve had the same idea.
Still, for a band who appear to be getting all their ideas from other people R.E.M. can still knock together a coherent, challenging and above all darn fine (if overlong) album. Sometimes the air of intellectual elitism (possibly noticeable now more than ever because weve finally been granted the lyrics to peruse) and anti-hummable melody collude to make proceedings hard going (much of the first side, for example), but at the core of "Up" are a clutch of songs that are as charming, moving and erudite as R.E.M. have ever been.
Youll probably have heard the single "Daysleeper" by now, and, yes, it does seem more than a spiritual cousin of "Nightswimming" off "Automatic For The People", both musically and lyrically, but as a parable to the chronologically dispossessed maybe it has more in common with the minutely observed highspots of "New Adventures In Hi-Fi" such as "New Test Leper", for example. Whatever, its a fine pop song that makes you think, and you get depressingly few of those to the Euro these days. Elsewhere, "Hope" owes its melodic structure to Leonard Cohens "Suzanne" - Laughing Len gets a co-writing credit - but manages to sound entirely of its makers, with Stipe hammering away down a Joycean stream of consciousness (sample lyric: "and you want to cross your DNA with something reptile"), and "At My Most Beautiful" belies its smug title by turning out to be one of R.E.M.s most gentle, blushing love songs.
In fact love appears to be a recurring theme on "Up" (have they ever written love songs before? I cant think of any offhand): "Sad Professor" could be the memoirs of a crusty academic who chose to pursue a lonely life of study, but the real emotional core of the song probably exists on a level several layers below such superficial surface observations. "Diminished" apparently enters the mindset of a person on trial for murder, with its repeated anguished "Is the justice wavering?" chorus line. All of this is, as you might expect from the band, subject matter either outside the traditional remit of the popular song, or else the usual suspects given an endearing new twist. Whilst much of the media is being subjected to a relentless dumbing down it seems that R.E.M. are almost alone in dumbing up (hence the title?). This is music that sustains, even demands repeated listening, being probably their least immediate work since the landmark "Fables Of The Reconstruction".
But, in showbiz tradition, they save the best for last: "Falls To Climb" reads like a pseudo-religious allegory on the role of the scapegoat, with its chorus of "Who cast the final stone?/Who threw the crushing blow?/Someone has to take the fall/Why not me?" against a majestic, slow moving (drummerless!) backdrop. Its the final five minutes of an album that proves that, despite internal strife, R.E.M. remain as true to their ideals and as generous of artistic spirit as ever they were, and have managed to create some cracking music to boot. Definitely an album to spend a few of these long, cold winter nights in the company of: you might learn a lot.
R.E.M. The Great Beyond (Warner Bros.)
The one new R.E.M. song from the soundtrack to Milos Forman's Andy Kaufman biopic "Man On The Moon" wisely gets released as a single, and it's a predictable but enjoyable slab of identikit R.E.M. - if "Driver 8" was as typical as mid-80s R.E.M. songs ever got, then "The Great Beyond" is the equivalent that elegantly sums up everything they've achieved during the last decade, all insidious melody, subtle arrangement and audible but impenetrable lyrics ("I'm pushing an elephant up the stairs/I'm tossing up punchlines that were never there"). Maybe its something of an irrelevance compared to the new directions in music forged on their first post-Bill Berry album "Up", but if more bands could make irrelevance sound this pleasant the world would be a far-less tune starved place.
The CD single is filled out by two tracks recorded at Glastonbury last year: "Everybody Hurts" goes a bit lighters aloft crowd karaoke for my liking, but "The One I Love" arguably kicks harder that its ever done, as vicious a misunderstood paean to the misunderstood as always.
R.E.M. Parallel (Warner Music Vision)
This DVD - a reissue of a previously released VHS package - bundles up all R.E.M.'s promotional videos circa "Automatic For The People" and "Monster". The promo clips themselves fall neatly into two distinct categories, those filmed as straight or near-straight performances, and those where some effort has been made to visualise and contextualise the songs.
Inevitably it's the latter than make for more interesting viewing. "Man On The Moon", for example - which has already wormed its way into my DVD collection as an extra on the Region 1 release of the excellent Andy Kaufman biopic of the same name - is heart-warmingly fabulous, even though not a great deal happens in dramatic terms: Stipe wanders through a black and white desertscape and hitches a lift to a roadside bar where the regulars mouth their way through the song watched by the band. There's something ineffably right about it. "Everybody Hurts" is another goodie: subtitles track the private thoughts of people caught in a traffic jam, with Stipe the messiah leading them out from their cars and on to a better place. "Nightswimming", with its shots of skinny-dippers presumably accounting for this disc's 15 certificate, has grown an accompanying short film of its own, the visuals being as luminous as the song deserves.
The remainder are mostly rather more dreary performance videos, featuring the band on (sound)stage. The biggest disappointment has to be Spike Jonze's promo for "Crush With Eyeliner", in which the band are replaced by a group of Japanese fans who slash and mime their way through the song, frustratingly conventional from the 'mind' of the man who brought the world Daft Punk's sterling "Da Funk" clip and the wondrous "Being John Malkovich". Also on the down side, although the visual quality of these mostly monochrome and artily fuzzy videos is well up to scratch, the sound is weedily thin and anaemic in places, "Everybody Hurts" being a particularly good/bad example. Back on the credit list, the songs themselves are wrapped up in all manner of inter-track tomfoolery involving, among other things, surveillance cameras and miscreant furniture, there's a cryptic R.E.M. A-to-Z visual guide (the answers to your questions being briefly revealed at the end of the programme) and an unlisted rehearsal of "Star Me Kitten" plays over the credits.
In terms of 'added value', or the reasons why you should buy the DVD in favour of the cheaper VHS video, well, there's some nice animated menus, and of course you can access any video as near to instantly as makes no odds, but the real differential-bridging reason has to be the English lyric subtitles, so at last you can attempt to decipher what Stipe's banging on about and that has to be worth the admission fee on its own!
R.E.M. Tourfilm (Warner Music Vision)
"Tourfilm" is a straight DVD reissue of the VHS production of this record of the tour R.E.M. undertook to promote their first major label release, "Green". And as such you can probably join the dots yourself: lots of moody, grainy, monochrome footage, brilliant, mysterious songs expertly performed (and now with subtitles!) and the same shabby air of "Will this do?" that permeates Warner's other R.E.M. DVDs. If you're an R.E.M. addict, like me, essential, but for anyone else this release barely gets out of bed to make the effort to welcome you (a criticism of the company, naturally, not the band!).
R.E.M. Reveal (Warner Bros.)
At a time when you might be expecting R.E.M. to be comfortably settling in to their comparatively recent recasting as a three-piece, there seems to have been more kafuffle from the band's camp then at any time in their 21-year history. In recent months we've had the 'revelations' about Michael Stipe's sexuality, conveniently timed to hit the news-stands at round about the same time "Reveal" gets racked up in the Megabores, the world's most unlikely air-rage incident courtesy of Peter Buck and a yoghurt pot and much fawning press speculation/adulation that suggests "Reveal" is the closest R.E.M. have yet come to invoking the rattling ghosts of the deservedly phenomenally successful "Automatic For The People" album.
Think about that for a minute, about how great "Automatic For The People" is. On a Wednesday in early Autumn 1992, my first week away at University, Peter, Bill, Mike and Michael released an album that, for the most part, contained 50 minutes of downbeat, introspective, heavily encoded musing about death, politics, miscommunication, Andy Kaufmann and Generation X apathy, spiked it with a few uncomplicated observations about love and pain that struck a chord that reverberated planet-wide and sat back whilst they became as close to officially as can be measured (in the only way these can be determined numerically, the Yankee dollar, eighty million of them) the Best Band In The World. Ponder how astonishing that is: it might have been only a few short years ago, but in the climate of today's manufactured tweenie-targetting bigger better master more now now now popular music machinery it seems frankly alien to suggest that it would be possible to move the masses to listen to music of such frontier-breaching quality in such goldrush quantity. Droves went for it, and they still do whenever Richard or Nipper knock off a few boxloads of it that they found in the back of the warehouse for £6.99 a pop you'll see "Automatic For The People" bubble up into the lower reaches of the torpid 40.
And some might say, or some have at least been paid to make you think/believe, that "Reveal" is cut from the same cloth. This sounds like artless PR spin to these ears, in the same way that "Reveal" sounds almost nothing like the darkness-soaked eternal hope spring mandolin wind of "Automatic For The People", and rather more, almost entirely in fact, like the not-entirely-seamless burbling electronica with added rootsy kudos of their first three-cornered offering, "Up". And, rather more distressingly than that, it's probably not even as good as that: "Up" might have had its shaky moments, but you could just about dismiss those furrows from your brow on the grounds that the band were essentially still finding their feet in their new configuration, coping bravely and throwing enough quantity material at the wall that enough quality managed to stick. Second time around it's becoming harder to mentally paper over the cracks, especially considering that "Reveal" has experienced the longest gestation period of any R.E.M. album yet.
The good bait: "I've Been High" is a lovely thing, all that electronica twinkling in the background like city lights. The first single "Imitation Of Life" is a solid, archetypal R.E.M. song; bar the odd contemporary nip and tuck the template dates back to "Driver 8" and beyond, the kind of marvellous music that no other band in the world can tap out, made all the more exasperating by the way R.E.M. make it look as effortless as if it came to them whilst they slept. And "The greatest thing since bread came sliced" is lyric of the year so far. "I'll Take The Rain" is the album's third significant high watermark, the closest Michael Stipe has yet brushed with the classic torch ballad form. I'll grudgingly award a half-star to opening track "The Lifting", apparently about a woman struggling to achieve self-awareness by attending seminars on the topic, mainly because the audaciousness of the subject matter shows that the band are still struggling, grasping at something, however out of reach of them or us or our understanding that might be.
Maybe it's because, like last time around, we have the printed lyrics to examine: perhaps that's when the mystery of R.E.M. began to evaporate. In olden times, remember, you could barely discern the words Michael Stipe was singing, let alone begin to speculate on the meaning attached. Instead of opening the doors of perception, seeing them all writ down just makes the lyrics look like a series of random Burroughsian cut-up observations at best, stylised nonsense at worst. You find yourself grappling onto any line that contains something familiar that you can identify with, for instance "mingus, chet baker and chess" partway through "She Just Wants To Be", and worrying what kind of chess he's singing about: the lower-case lyric sheet fails to divulge whether board games or early, pioneering rock 'n' roll is the topic for discussion.
Or maybe it's because, with the exception of the three-and-a-half honourable exceptions detailer earlier, R.E.M. are churning out the least memorable music of their career, melodies as bereft of hummable hooklines as the world-tour-supplement grunge-gone-cold of the "Monster" album. Apart from the acoustic guitar introduction to, I think, "Disappear", which displays a fluency for Steve Howe's prime-time Yes work, "Reveal" is a long slog through great oceans of unremarkableness. Which is bad news from a band as genuinely talented and intelligent as R.E.M., made worse by the way the press machinery and possibly even the band themselves are trying to hustle this empty vessel into port under the flag of convenience of faux-intelligence. From a distance it might sound and read like a worthy, considered exercise, it almost certainly is a worthy and considered exercise - squint as I might I really can't see R.E.M. as the band to short-change their fanbase, take the money and run, but to me beneath the considerable hype "Reveal" has about as much significance and substance as blancmange. I don't think it could be due to high expectations being left cruelly unsatisfied - apart from the black Monday of "Monster" the quality of R.E.M. albums has arguably been on a gently downward trend since they accomplished everything with "Automatic For The People", and I can't recall a single twinge of regret in the last two-and-a-half years that work on the follow-up to "Up" wasn't preceding with a little more pace. (The seven year itch between Blue Nile albums, on the other hand, gives you a little more space for contemplation.)
I rant because I care. If it were the new picks random band from pile of names in top hat Seafood album I was disappointed by it wouldn't matter a fraction as much, because R.E.M. have taken a lot of us higher than many/any other band(s) in the past, and some party whip somewhere has decreed that you and me will be similarly bowled over by this latest, which is apparently the same as the greatest. But to me they're as alike as two snowflakes in a pod, and even though I'd buy this album unheard irrespective of whatever anybody claimed for it, I cant help feeling cheated and deceived.
R.E.M. Around The Sun (Warner Bros.)
I first heard R.E.M.s unlucky 13th album ahead of its release, after the band, possibly foolhardily, offered it up to the internet, and those initial impressions werent positive. Yes, it sounded like R.E.M., at least as much as R.E.M. ever have in their rather fogbound drummerless state, but oh, the suffocating blandness of Around The Sun, the unrelenting mid-tempo plod that made me yearn for a spark of spontaneity. Even a flicker of late-period by-rote R.E.M. like Daysleeper or Imitation Of Life would be enough. Trailed as a political work, whatever bark and bite it packed seemed to be smothered in cotton wool this is no Document or Green.
But accept it what it is, rather than reject it for what it isnt, get over the hurdle of its unremittingly middle-of-the-road, white line-hugging sameness, and its possible to focus on what Around The Sun actually does deceptively rather well at. These songs are conspicuously crafted: their inner mechanics click and mesh with the kind of watchmakers precision that Steely Dan used to display when still labouring under the pretence that they were a band and not an elite session musicians social club. The best moments work on a subliminal level, drawing you in deeper after half a dozen plays or more.
Take The Outsiders which, with its guest rap by Q-Tip immediately lines itself up for unflattering glory day comparisons with the KRS-1-assisted Radio Song. Yet with time it becomes irresistibly mysterious, and the brief pre-drum break pause that prefaces Q-Tips performance is surely the most arresting use of silence in the bands catalogue. Like much of Around The Sun, there are shifting undercurrents of unease beneath the immaculately unruffled surface.
Make It All Okay is a ballad with the clichés squeezed out. With its clunking piano tropes its that close to being Chicago or sumpn, yet theres a defiance and disillusionment that makes it something entirely other. No work of easy genius, this, but again, theres too much going on to dismiss it. On I Wanted To Be Wrong it seems that Find The River has finally found a home, sunlight-dappled optimism gradually clouded by what seems like an oblique (but isnt it always?) commentary on Americas ongoing cultural rightsizing adventure in Iraq.
Bordered by the uncharacteristically bouncy and jaunty Wanderlust and Aftermath, The Boy In The Well is lost in a murky minor key undertow, carved and polished just so. It makes no effort to ingratiate itself with the listener, the uneasy side of easy listening.
Even in its comparatively invariant state Around The Sun falters towards the end, listener fatigue setting in around side fours High Speed Train and The Worst Joke Ever. Theres still a late little victory in The Ascent Of Man, whose slow-motion whoops seem to have wandered in from another album entirely. The retro vintage stylings are surprising, and surprisingly successful, as well: check off some rootsy organ, fuzz bass and an electric sitar sound that probably hasnt seen service on record since the Dans Do It Again.
Around The Sun might not be anybodys idea of a classic R.E.M. album, but given the hobbling path theyve described since what we can probably all agree as their last such, Automatic For The People, its dark, concealed potency still comes as something of a surprise. Give it a while to reveal its true self and against all rational explanation these songs will get their hooks into your subconscious.
R.E.M. Accelerate (Warner Bros.)
Considered solely as a recorded artefact, R.E.M.’s 14th album is something of a disaster area. Purpose-built for stadia-sized touring duties, as with 1994’s similarly blighted “Monster”, “Accelerate” is an empty vessel experience, its supercharged Stooges clank delivering too much of nothing. The shortcomings in sound and song are exacerbated by Jacknife Lee’s bizarre production; with the meters welded into the red for the entirety of the album, there’s absolutely no dynamic range here at all. Thin, brittle, oppressive and harsh, it’s the kind of album that it’s a relief to turn the volume down on. Somewhat ironically given that no R.E.M. album is likely to benefit less from such fastidious treatment, the vinyl version arrives on two slabs of theoretically audiophile-friendly 180 gram 45 rpm vinyl, with a copy of the album on CD flung into the packaging as well. It doesn’t improve an album that’s sonically beyond redemption, but it does mean you have to change sides every eight or nine minutes.
What makes all of this more shameful than it might have been had “Accelerate” just been another disappointing late-period R.E.M. album is that, deep down, there are some fine songs buried beneath the album’s sonic sludge. How do I know? Well, having seen R.E.M. play Twickenham earlier this year I can vouch that the likes of “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” and “Man-Sized Wreath” held their ground in a setlist generously laced with IRS-era classics. The piano ballad verses of “Hollow Man” offer some welcome respite, and “Houston” sounds like something Jimmy Webb might’ve written for Glen Campbell even before reaching its “Galveston”-referencing chorus. “Sing For The Submarine” suggests a songwriter’s stocktaking exercise, its lyrics peppered with fleeting references to past R.E.M. songs, and I have to applaud the “Death is pretty final/I’m collecting vinyl” sentiment that powers “I’m Gonna DJ”.
“Accelerate” also emphasises how far R.E.M. have eclipsed their (or perhaps specifically Michael Stipe’s) mumbling, enigmatic image of yore. Not only do we get printed lyrics, there are also supporting quotations from Sinclair Lewis and William S. Burroughs. It’s all a far cry from the band that couldn’t be bothered to list all the track titles on the cover of “Life’s Rich Pageant”. Heck, they’ve even gotten all self-censorious on the lyric sheet: kids, see if you can work out what Michael really songs on the line printed as “Friday night cufk or fight a pub crawl”.
Don’t let this wretched record dissuade you from seeing R.E.M. live, though; it really is the best, perhaps the only, way to appreciate them, and these bludgeoned songs, circa 2008.