The year was 1994, and R.E.M., or The White Stipes, as they were known at the time, decided to make a stadium rock album. The problem (to switch tenses) is that R.E.M. is to stadium rock what glue is to paper i.e. not, and therefore they instead recorded an album of plodding, loud songs with great guitar tones and clever lyrics but shrouded by lameness. The good news, of course, is that R.E.M. more or less pull off the old switcheroo with aplomb. The sound is interesting too: the drums go plod…plod…plod on every song, the guitars are everywhere and super-distorted, the bass is hard to hear, and the vocals are more or less buried under the guitars, but the songs are nearly all angry, sex-obsessed and impressively un-R.E.M. – a good mix, really, excepted for the unexcited drumming. Someone was counting the days until his aneurysm!
For the most part, the lameness comes from slow-ass (really, it’s slow like riding a donkey) music that sounds like a bunch of musically talented dads trying to rock – it’s kind of awkward and dated-sounding, and the awkward aspect isn’t much helped by the fact that the sound are mostly about either desire or now-dated cultural references. Dialing Star 69 (“Star 69”)? Bahaahahaha! People being too obsessed with image (“Crush WIth Eyeliner”)? Been there, done that (by 2010)! Being friends with crazy ol’ suicidal Kurt Cobain (“Let Me In”)? YAWN.
But the good news! Oh, the good news. Let’s start with the vaunted guitar tone. Peter Buck’s guitar tone on this album is one of the greatest accomplishments of mankind. I can do it very little justice, but it’s loud and it’s all over every song here (except the piano-led “Tongue”) and the more of it the better, particularly the coda of “Strange Currencies” (which I used to rewind and listen to again and again as a teen) and the complicatedish “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream.” I love it love it love it with every tired synapse in my head every day that I wake up, except for the ones when I forget about it entirely. The lyrics are solid, too. It’s weird hearing a bunch of middle-aged guys singing about sex and jealousy, but those are pretty great topics for loud, slow songs. A couple couplets I’m fond of: “Ugly girls know their place / Anybody can get laid” from “Tongue” and “I’ve got my telescope head in the haystack / I am tired of your dodgeball circus act” from “Circus Envy.”
And nearly every song has something to recommend about it! Particularly great are the far superior “Everybody Hurts” rewrite “Strange Currencies,” (just add guitar tone and overconfident stalker lyrics!), dark, distorted jealousy song “Circus Envy,” copulation-tastic love song “You,” and the album opening what-the-hell of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth.” And who wouldn’t love the white noise blast of “Let Me In” (the least dated song on here musically), the catchy chorus of “I Took Your Name,” and the wraparound vocals of “Star 69”? A person who disagrees with me and is therefore wrong and an idiot, that’s who.
Yes, “Crush With Eyeliner” and “I Took Your Name” are the same song, the instrumental after “Bang and Blame” is boring and worthless, “King of Comedy” sounds 80s-y, every song is too slow (except “You,” where it fits), and the falsetto in “Tongue” could drive a man to aneurysm, but our differences are what make us unique. It’s like how Arabs smell and worship demons, but we leave them alone, you know? At least, I do. I leave them alone even though they smell and worship demons.
I give it — no wait, I have to make one more aneurysm joke: If I was R.E.M., I’d do this hilarious stunt at every show: say “this next song is dedicated to our drummer, Bill Berry,” then play a raucous cover of Nirvana’s “Aneurysm.” It’s be awesome, trust me.
Seven out of ten, plus an entire extra point for the world’s greatest guitar tone in history. I’m listening to “Strange Currencies” right now and I just can’t help myself.