Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Song of the Day: R.E.M. - What's the Frequency, Kenneth? (1994)

In honor of Election Day, I wanted to write about an artist that has been overtly political and supporting of getting young people to vote (and vote democrat!), and because I'm saving Pearl Jam for a specific occasion, R.E.M. is today's lucky winner. 

I don't know precisely when I bought R.E.M.'s 1994 album, Monster, but it was almost certainly sometime in early '95, when the videos from it would have still been all over MTV. I had a vague understanding that R.E.M. had been around a lot longer than all of the other bands I was listening to, and I already knew their hits from earlier in the '90s like "Losing My Religion," "Everybody Hurts," and "Man on the Moon," but I was still a year or so away from being exposed to their seminal '80s work. Monster was hugely successful with alternative music fans, which is why it became one of the most ubiquitous CDs to find in used bins later in the decade. Everyone thought it was good enough to buy, but comparatively few people thought it was good enough to keep, especially when R.E.M.'s star dramatically faded in the years to come. 

These days it's popular to hate on Monster, which I don't quite understand. There's no question that it's not nearly as good as its predecessor, Automatic For the People, which is a masterpiece, but it's also a lot better than their first two Warners albums, Green and Out of Time, which are both uneven and try too hard to invade the pop mainstream. It could be argued that Monster tried just as hard to enter the alternative mainstream, but I don't quite look at it like that. Yes, this was obviously a departure for their typical sound, and it's a departure that was heavily influenced by the alternative music explosion of the previous three years, but I don't see it as an attempt to remain popular (which I don't really think R.E.M. cared about all that much) as much as it's an attempt to stay relevant. They wanted to believe their fastball was still a force to be reckoned with, and I admire when artists of an older generation experience that fit of defiance towards fading away (which is why Some Girls is still one of my favorite 'Stones albums). As Springsteen once said, "that's the life of a gunslinger, you're always lookin' over your shoulder for the next kid that's faster than you are." 

Monster has its ups and downs overall, and I happen to think the ups are far more frequent than the downs, but less debatable is the fact that the leadoff track and first single, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", is absolutely fantastic. The riff and the energy are both dialed up to 11, a number R.E.M. had been previously hesitant to access, but you wouldn't know it from this. Here, they sound like 11 is their home court. Not only is the song influenced by the alternative mainstream movement happening at the time, but it's also influenced by the artistic developments U2 had been traveling over the previous several years going from the black & white somber seriousness of The Joshua Tree to the neon colored explosions of Euro-electronica on  Achtung Baby and Zooropa. In a lot of ways, the entirety of Monster can be seen as an alternate version of Achtung Baby, one that could have been recorded in Seattle instead of Berlin. No, it's not nearly as good as Achtung Baby, but that same restless spirit of innovation is all over it. 

It's ironic that the album which confirmed R.E.M. as heroes to a second generation of fans was also their last real moment in the zeitgeist. It's difficult to say if that was by choice or by circumstance. Their follow-up, 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, was certainly less commercial and MTV accessible, but the band also might not have expected the music industry to change and leave them behind as fast it did. But that's the life of the gunslinger; one day, you're just not quite fast enough anymore. 

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