Strange Currencies

July 17, 2007

The most important part of the chorus of “Strange Currencies” is not that Michael Stipe is singing a line as painfully straightforward as “you will be mine,” but rather that he’s openly acknowledging that what he’s uttering are in fact words. I don’t want to say “just words,” although that’s the implication at least of half of the time; that there’s a rather large gulf between what he says and what he does or what he feels or how reality interferes with his desires. On the other hand, there’s a sense that words are magical things that have the power to give shape to our psyches and our lives.

Michael’s character is doing his best to nudge his fantasy into reality, and his best plan is to focus on his desire, to repeat it over and over like an incantation. It’s a last ditch effort, and he’s feeling vulnerable and desperate, but not quite defeated. Maybe he should quit, maybe the object of his affection is way out of his league and there’s just no chance of it ever working out, but he’s still hanging on to that one last shred of hope. The sentiment of the song is both beautiful and absolutely pathetic, and as such, it’s the ideal midpoint for the Monster album.

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Circus Envy

May 31, 2007

“Circus Envy,” a deranged surf-rock tune at the end of Monster, is the single noisiest track in the entire R.E.M. discography. It’s also one of the best engineered. Peter Buck and Mike Mills both achieve highly specific effects that might have been drowned out in a lesser mix, but the balance maintained throughout the track is both ideal and evocative. Guitar noise seems to hang in mid-air before slowly decaying into nothingness, bass notes drip like melting ice cream, and riffs coalesce like sticky gobs of neon-colored tar. Meanwhile, the percussion feels crisp and brisk despite some seriously overbearing accompaniment. It sounds like no other song that I’ve ever heard.

Michael Stipe’s voice is also distorted. It’s pinched and extremely lo-fi, exaggerating his nasal quality to fully inhabit the scrawny, geeky protagonist of his lyrics. Like most of the songs on Monster, “Circus Envy” is a song about obsession, but it’s not exactly romantic, and its sexuality is mostly sublimated. It’s essentially a take-off on the classic Charles AtlasThe Insult That Made A Man Out Of Mac” advertisements from the 50s and 60s — a muscle man bullies and emasculates a “97-pound weakling” on the beach, triggering his feelings of inadequacy, jealousy of his tormentor’s hyper-masculine power, and intense desire for revenge. When Stipe’s character is fearful of the “monster” within his psyche, it’s unclear whether the “awful feeling” he’s talking about is his repressed aggression, or his desire to acquire the physical power and sexual dominance of his nemesis.

The geek’s dilemma is underlined in the final verse: “If I were you, I’d really run from me / I really, really wish that I were you.” For the longest time I took this as an expression of extreme self-loathing, i.e., he wishes that could run away from himself, but I’ve found that it implies more or less the same thing if you take it at face value. He hates his own lack of strength and traditional masculinity far more than the bully, and his revenge fantasy is ultimately a quest to obliterate his own identity.

A breakfast cereal note: Up until very recently, whenever I heard the line “I spelled your name with Oatios,” I never thought that he was lining them up in his milk to form letters, but rather that the name was like “OOOOOOO,” which is far more creepy and nonsensical.

Crush With Eyeliner

May 15, 2007

We are conditioned to value authenticity in art, but the thing is, all creativity is essentially at odds with objective truth and reality, even when we strive for aesthetic realism. Nevertheless, the will to express ourselves through the act of creation is a central part of the human experience in that whether we are aware of it or not, we are constantly revising our own personalities and nudging our realities into new shapes with every decision that we make.

“Crush With Eyeliner” is a song about being attracted to a person for their imagination and the way they use it to actively reconstruct their image and identity. Michael Stipe’s character is smitten by a woman’s calculated affectations, and is inspired to reinvent himself in order to win her favor. Though the lyrics are a bit wry, “Crush With Eyeliner” is by no means an indictment of superficial poseurs — if anything, it’s a celebration of those among us who recognize the fluidity of identity and are willing to unlock repressed aspects of themselves by playing dress-up.

It’s been said that this is a song about Courtney Love, and though that makes a lot of sense, I actually prefer to think that the object of the singer’s affection is actually a drag queen so that the “she’s a real woman-child” line has the same ring of irony as when Michael insists that he is “the real thing.” Same difference, I guess — even before she started looking like a Barbie doll, Courtney always had the instinct for nuanced irony and appreciation of artifice common among drag queens. As she sings in her hit “Doll Parts,” she fakes it so real she is beyond fake.

“Crush With Eyeliner” is unapologetically flirtatious and campy, and though it’s the second track on Monster, it’s the song that establishes the musical and lyrical themes for the rest of the album. Peter Buck’s exaggerated tremolo effect on the song is perhaps the most iconic sonic element on the record, and its colorful, cartoonish sound ranks among the most distinct guitar tones in a decade overflowing with inspired noisemakers. The oscillations come in a woozy intervals that recall the image of waves of heat rising off of concrete on an oppressively humid summer day, and it lends the song a stoned, slightly aloof feeling that fits nicely with Stipe’s intensely self-aware lyrics.

You

April 4, 2007

It’s a bad idea to try to pin any sort of narrative on Monster — simply put, one does not exist — but in the context of the album, “You” is the logical conclusion to its general theme of obsessive, unrequited love. By the time we get to “You,” the cuteness of “Crush With Eyeliner,” the coyness of “King of Comedy,” and the earnestness of “Strange Currencies” are all distant memories, and even the destructive self-loathing of “I Took Your Name” and “Circus Envy” has run its course. At this point in the record, the singer’s religion is thoroughly and irrevocably lost, and all that is left is an aching emotional void and a lingering, undead desire.

Peter Buck’s guitars dominate the track, with an eerie pulse emphasizing a sense of post-traumatic shock, and a heavy, slashing rhythm evoking nothing less than total emotional devastation. Michael Stipe’s vocal performance is intense yet slightly disconnected, lending even his most benign sentiments a creepy, unhealthy tone. The song contains some of the most evocative images of Stipe’s career as a lyricist — “all my childhood toys with chew marks in your smile,” “I can see you there with lunar moths and watermelon gum” — but the peculiar specificity of the words only highlights the song’s desperate, deranged sensibility.

As the track comes to an end, Stipe repeats the word “you” with increasingly urgency as the music hits a chilling peak. It sounds like an act of self-nullification, as though he could only think to destroy himself by focusing his entire existence on someone else. When the song begins, Stipe’s character seems physically disconnected from his body and the world, and in its final moments, his mind seems to disappear as well.

Let Me In

March 26, 2007

This was originally posted on Fluxblog on March 23, 2007.

This is for Chris, who turned 25 today. Like myself, Chris has a deep and totally unapologetic love for R.E.M.’s Monster, though our favorite songs on the album are a bit different. For me, “Let Me In” has always been the painful (emotionally, not aesthetically) dirge that I flick past in order to get from the creepy “I Took Your Name” to the creepier “Circus Envy,” but for him, it’s the high point of the entire record. As he puts it:

I tend to like songs with a big, romantic, epic longing to them, but who’s expressing that longing matters. It shouldn’t be showy; it needs to come from a voice or narrator who doesn’t always let these things out. Which is definitely Stipe. I just like that the song is so fuzzy and odd, in both sound and lyric, and then that one long keening note just slices through it, followed by that simple, powerful statement.

He’s not wrong. The guitar on the album version is almost too much for me to handle sometimes. The tone, attack, and mixing level is extremely atypical for R.E.M., and though it’s not the weirdest performance you’ll ever hear, it certainly feels like an enormous weight bearing down on the listener and the singer, alternately representing Stipe’s gnawing grief, and the vast chasm separating himself and the person being addressed in the lyrics. The dense, crashing chords are distracting and seem to interrupt or drown out his sincere, understated sentiment, but that’s exactly the point — he needs to sing around, or through, this wall of emotional noise.

“Let Me In” has barely been played live since the end of the Monster tour, though it was reprised with a radically different arrangement during the band’s performance at the Bridge School benefit in the fall of 2001. The new version replaces the heavy electric guitar and distant organ of the original with uneasy acoustic strumming and a subtle melodic counterpoint on a vibraphone, or something rather similar. The effect of the song is altered considerably, implying that time has distanced him from the intense emotions of the studio recording, but that he’s still recovering from the loss eight years later.