Last week news broke out of nowhere that Rock and Roll Hall of Famers R.E.M. were calling it quits after almost three decades and fifteen albums together. It was almost like hearing your grandparents were getting a divorce after all these years. What is most surprising is they are closing up shop after releasing their best album since drummer Bill Berry left the band. Of course this brings up the old sports question of do you retire after winning the championship or keep trying to get one when you are no longer productive, so maybe it is better to call it quits now or turn into The Rolling Stones who have not put out a listenable album in my lifetime.
R.E.M. hit their creative stride the early nineties. Ironically, after being the face of alternative music, or college rock as it was called then, for most of the eighties, the group made it big by going mellow just as alternative was making it into the mainstream. After two album, the band packed in their mandolins and dusted off the guitars for Monster, which was not even a back to their roots movement but ended up expanding their sound even more and this month’s induction into the Scooter Hall of Fame.
Monster started off with the heaviest guitar riff Peter Buck ever on What’s the Frequency Kenneth? setting the listener up for a louder and fuzzier sound. It also us a glimpse into the theme of celebrity that runs throughout the album, with the title of the song coming from a phrase an someone repeatedly yelled at Dan Rather while attacking him. The album also ends with another stalkerish track You which manages to be creepy and awesome at the same time. The other most notable song about celebrity was Let Me In, a tribute to Kurt Cobain who committed suicide months earlier.
Aside from the opening song, the other stand out track is Strange Currency. It is thematically closer to the songs on the previous two albums, but with much more feedback that makes it fit in with the rest of the tracks on Monster. The song may be the sweetest song the band ever wrote after Nightswimming and Michael Stipe shows why he has one of the great voices in the history of rock when he sings lines like, “I need a chance, a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance…” Here is hoping that voice is not lost forever just because the band broke up.