Monster (Warner Bros.)

R.E.M.

By Bob Bahr

Monster's riddle is that R.E.M. has managed to be simultaneously adventurous and safe, punk and polished, fresh and retreaded, modern and nostalgic, mainstream and underground. Even with all these internal contradictions, Monster comes off as cohesive because it is all distinctively R.E.M.

Only the aurally challenged haven't heard the first single, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" Endearing pop fluff, it nevertheless carries the flag for MonsterBy giving notice that this album is a showcase for guitarist Peter Buck. It also reintroduces the spirit of early R.E.M., a group with a boisterous, unstudied feel.

Several cuts pointedly evoke R.E.M.'s past. Peter Buck's guitar floods Stipe's vocals on "I Took Your Name" – just like the old days. Again on "Star 69," the guitar rips and roars above Stipe's undermixed, echoed vocals, like an outtake from Murmur. "Strange Currencies" cops the cyclical guitar arpeggio of "Everybody Hurts," and adds an eyedropper of dissonance to the sweetness, with Stipe's vibrato cloying surely above the country-tinged, mid-tempo ballad.

A wall-shaking bass drum punctuates "Circus Envy," a brother to the rave-ups that snuck in singly or in twos on R.E.M.'s last three records. Those energetic tunes, to quote Stipe's lyrics, "put pepper in the coffee" of old R.E.M. fans. "Circus Envy" not only gives those longtime friends another gift, it advances this genre of R.E.M. songs further with significant musical growth.

"Bang and Blame" sounds like "Losing My Religion" in the verses, then gets muscly with a guitar-crunch of a chorus. The guitar jangle and distortion in the bridge is vintage Murmur material, with Stipe's lyrics floating in and out of the spotlight just enough to sear brilliant phrases on your hook-mad brain. "Bang and Blame" is R.E.M. using every weapon in their musical arsenal.

The most notable new elements on Monster are the effects used on guitar and vocals – especially reverb and delay – and an accompanying bad attitude toward pop life. "Crush with Eyeliner" discusses the pros and cons of posturing, casting itself in the times and attitudes of the Velvet Underground. Perhaps singer/lyricist Michael Stipe has seen enough posturing in celebrity and art circles in the last few years to immediately identify "the real thing." His cry of "faker!" at the end of several lines has the piercing ring of a prophetess accusing a blasphemer. The VU tone and Lou Reed-inspired vocals make the digs at pop culture a little edgier, then the following song, "King of Comedy," unravels the reinvention of U2 with a denouncement of television, pop art as commodity and slicked-hair music industry types. The reverb altered voice of Stipe recalls Bono's recent experimentation with electronically altered vocals.

"I Don't Sleep, I Dream" is state-of-the-art R.E.M., hypnotic underpinnings of repeated instrumental phrases, Stipe showing off his low, plaintive voice, his delicate falsetto, and his trademark soulful, rock croon, all mixed to the same dynamic level, which is coincidentally well below the volume of the guitar figure and drummer Bill Berry's tom-tom barrage.

The artful "Let Me In" is even more extreme, with a distortion-drenched guitar inching along the chord changes like a fish navigating hard currents. Amid the noise, an organ plays a sweet melody that joins up briefly with the rough guitar part. The album's last cut, "You," climbs to the highest echelons of R.E.M. songs, along with at least six other songs on Monster. Haunting and addictive with a seductive, Doors-like mood, "You" hangs in the silence of the room long after the music ends.

Monster's tossed-off quality is reminiscent of Fables of the Reconstruction, a fun album that the band has disparaged in interviews. Well, I've always liked that album. And I'll always like Monster for the same reasons.