photo & text by nacrowe
i dont believe MONSTER (WARNER BROS, 1994) is the best or even the most consequential record by seminal INDIE ROCK band R.E.M., but it was the one that had the most effect on me during my time growing up in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. OUT OF TIME (WARNER BROS, 1994) reminds me of my time in early elementary school and very much got me into playing guitar (which is ironic because that was a mandolin-heavy record written by guitarist PETER BUCK after being temporarily bored by his instrument), while MONSTER for me was a much more emotionally heavier affair.
originally conceived as a possible venue for collaboration with NIRVANA frontman KURT COBAIN, his unfortunate passing earlier in 1994 is sonically and spiritually all over this record. with its more muscular production and riff-heavy sonic textures and opaque lyrics that referenced and challenged notions of VIOLENCE, IDENTITY and SEXUALITY, MONSTER very much felt like a contemporary ALTERNATIVE ROCK record of the period. or at least as close as R.E.M. would ever venture.
i was 10 when COBAIN passed and it was a shock to me and my friends. my grandmother passed away around that period and between the two it was basically my introduction to the concept of DEATH. in particular i remember hearing "BANG AND BLAME" on 106.7FM KROQ all the time and how that song invoked (to me) the pain of being left behind and sorting out the emotional carnage in the wake of such an event. im almost certain that is not what singer/lyricist MICHAEL STIPE intended, but that was my interpretation. that was definitely a big song during my youth. ive read that "LET ME IN" was explicitly about COBAIN and written shortly after his passing. emotionally there is a sense of catharsis in STIPE's vocals on that track, which almost has a GOSPEL-tinge to it, as if you can imagine him singing it in front of a choral ensemble. the droning, guitars are lifted by a solemn lilting melody sung to great effect.
i remember taking two friends of mine in 1994 to KNOTT'S BERRY FARM for my birthday and my recollection of that period is very much painted by PEARL JAM's VITALOGY (EPIC, 1994) and MONSTER. especially the energetic singles "CRUSH WITH EYELINER," "WHAT'S THE FREQUENCY, KENNETH?" and "STAR 69." the waves of delayed fuzzed-out distortion on those tracks to me are still a high-water mark of BUCK's sound even though i am cognizant of how much of a departure such was from his signature clean, jangly, RICKENBACKER-based sound. to this day i cannot dissociate such from recollections of the period, at this point those tones are part of my sense of IDENTITY. i just remember going into 4th grade and having difficulty internalizing how the world was becoming more complex and my friends were changing (because of girls and puberty in retrospect). it felt like the rules were being altered and it was that moment of TRANSITION and TRANSFORMATION that this record crystallizes in my imagination. and this was all before i moved to AFRICA two years later, which was the real defining transition point of my life i can say now in retrospect. that was the rubicon after which nothing was the same.
so yeah, MONSTER to me represents a point in my youth when everything was up for grabs and the music oddly expresses such in my projected experience. to me AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROS, 1992) was their best record objectively, but i still hold out at times to MONSTER for emotional and sentimental reasons. it is definitely worth revisiting and further investigation, even among other standout records in their catalogue. highly recommended.
photo & text by nacrowe
while this is not the best R.E.M. album, OUT OF TIME (WARNER BROS, 1991) is very much one of those records i remember as a young kid (i was 7 when this was released) with songs like "SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE" and "LOSING MY RELIGION" became massive hits on the radio. in fact i initially took guitar lessons in first grade because i was to learn those two songs. ironically this was the mandolin-heavy record that guitarist PETER BUCK wrote when he was on sabbatical from the guitar, but that is neither here nor there. for me this record was very much the entry point into the world of making and playing music. sadly i quit shortly thereafter because my hands were not big enough to play barre and open chords, that came later in middle school. my father took up lessons instead with my guitar teacher and several continents, 3 bands and nearly 20 guitars later he's still playing and learning his way around the instrument on a daily basis.
so yeah, thats what this record represents to me: my childhood and getting excited about guitar-playing in general. i know for some die-hard INDIE ROCK fans "SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE" is kind of a black-eye in their discography as it marks a point of seemingly unadulterated commercialism, but i disagree. there is nothing inauthentic about celebrating life and being content with oneself. to me it is very much in keeping with what i interpret as the persona surrounding MICHAEL STIPE and his willingness to be vulnerable and see the good in people. in a sense i view it as a song about FAITH, you are searching out for the good in people despite the fact that such leaves you susceptible to pain. for me that song in particular is almost a the flip-side to that of the deep introspection and seemingly painful process of SELF-DISCOVERY and SELF-ACCEPTANCE at heart in "LOSING MY RELIGION." its almost as if that sense of openness only comes from a sense of acceptance of ones own shortcomings.
i think this album often gets overlooked because of it singles but it is well-worth revisiting. for me i hold onto it for sentimental meanings as it reminds me of my bonds with my father, which encompasses the better parts of my childhood.
photo manipulations by nacrowe
R.E.M. BY MTV (VIACOM, 2014) is a pretty straightforward documentary cobbled together from, you guessed it, archival interview and performance footage of the band on MTV from throughout their career. the result of which is a surprisingly intimate narrative that for the most part is told in first-person from the band's perspective, as well as a sprinkling of record producers, record executives and the like.
the value of this documentary for me had nothing to do with their biography (of which i will spare you any plot summary), but rather the mysterious alchemy that was their songwriting process and how it was affected over time by external factors. in a sense their process was very pure as their was a communal ethic to their process. each brought in material and as a group they would mold it into shape. importantly this was concept was buttressed by the business decision to split publishing royalties evenly, which might sound like a boring detail but you'd be surprised how many bands have fallen by the wayside due to this important decision. over their career there was a sense of group ownership of their material which only deepened their trust in each other as financial incentives were not an issue.
when i think of guitarist PETER BUCK and his sound it very much reminds me of what JOHNNY MARR termed in his memoir as a "anti-Rockist" approach. like MARR, he tends to have a RICKENBACKER sound that can be at times clean and precise in an almost traditional FOLK sense and then impressionistic with suspended chords drenched in reverb. with R.E.M. there is a definite contrarian streak throughout their career and BUCK's guitar approach reflects such. his use of mandolin on OUT OF TIME (WARNER BROS, 1991) and the incorporation of sounds based in electronic music on later albums in the wake of drummer BILL BERRY's departure being prime examples. fundamentally his work, along with the rhythm section sets the tone that singer MICHAEL STIPE reacts to in his lyrics and vocal approach.
obviously STIPE is an iconic and celebrated singer who both popularized the COLLEGE ROCK / INDIE ROCK of the 1980s as well as helped usher in and very much participated in the ALTERNATIVE ROCK explosion of the 1990s. but to consider what it was he actually contributed is much harder to discern. its almost like the HEISENBERG UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE in that the closer you look, the more you are missing the point. taking his cue from the impressionistic sound of his band, there is an intuitiveness to his lyrics and voice. he almost seems to revel in ambiguity, especially early in his career. songs were more about presenting an emotion rather than delivering an idea. the fact that songs are gender neutral only adds to this ambiguity. only after their initial run of albums did he alter slightly his approach to address the bigger crowds at their shows.
what interests me about STIPE's career is how his writing and stage persona tackled this problem while maintaining his credibility. given his greater platform and the vapidness and skullduggery of dealing with the press, he consciously addressed issues he was passionate about including AIDS awareness, animal rights, gun legislation, LGBTQIA issues, etc. maybe this was influenced by his allies in PATTI SMITH, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, ADAM YAUCH, EDDIE VEDDER and KURT COBAIN, all who similarly fearlessly addressed such matters without fear of blowback, almost inviting it. some find this kind of outspokenness pretentious. some find STIPE's opaque lyrics in general pompous as well. as immortally stated in SPINAL TAP, "its a fine line between stupid... and uh, clever." luckily despite such external pressures, STIPE is the type that of artist that has a strong sense of self and follows his own trajectory.
and for me that sense of purpose is the legacy of R.E.M. even years now after their breakup. they are a great example of not compromising artistically and being commercially viable. and that art vs. commerce balance is quite the tight-rope act.
just the idea of listening to yourself is empowering. thats what i take from R.E.M.