More than any band of their generation, perhaps of all time, R.E.M. have conducted their career with restraint. They've resisted (deserved) stardom at each juncture--only reluctantly embracing videos, a major label, arena shows, and so forth--and have done so in such a way as to make their gradual compliance with superstar norms seem inevitable and even proper. It's fashionable to deride even conscientious bands for avarice these days; in this context it's worth noting that R.E.M.'s refusal to tour behind their last two albums represented a pass on profits measuring well into the eight figures. The years of restraint have produced a lavish, celebratory reception to the new Monster and next year's world tour. Almost every story written on the band--and there have been a lot, particularly since Michael Stipe ended his years of press silence--has highlighted the view from the R.E.M. camp: The band's most hard-edged album! Perhaps its best work! Stipe not HIV-positive! Tour looms!
The band deserve their rep, but the hoopla this year seems a little too pat. A factor in R.E.M.'s pristine position has been their masterful press relations. R.E.M. have the rock magazines and the munchkins of the alternative press down cold. (You get that impression after about the tenth profile casually mentions that Peter Buck pulled the writer aside to confide that the interview was "really great--one of the best the band has ever done.") Monster is harder than the rather undistinguished Out of Time and the mournful Automatic for the People, but raucousnesswise it's just a repeat of 1989's Green--the album that, coincidentally enough, accompanied the last tour. (There are a lot of direct musical similarities, too: play the bridge of the new "Bang and Blame" next to Green's "Orange Crush.") The album has an air of contrivance about it, as if the band had the whole sales spiel in mind before they started recording. That hard-edged guitar sound is mostly attributable to the dollops of tremolo Buck uses throughout the album. The rest of it is dabbling: "Circus Envy" is just "Near Wild Heaven" with a couple of distorted guitar tracks beneath the vocals. And as for Stipe's singing, instead of the searing sadness and playful crooning of Automatic we have posture after posture: menacing growls on "King of Comedy," a falsetto croon on "Tongue," the Jagger-like drawl of "I Took Your Name." Monster is one of those albums you have to buy into, as opposed to the type that reveals itself to you. It's not worthless: despite being burdened with some of Stipe's most overwrought lyrics, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" cranks handsomely; "Strange Currencies," a sort of warped prom ballad, is sensitively sung; and "Let Me In," Stipe's swirling, mournful tribute to Kurt Cobain, is emotional and persuasive. But R.E.M., princes of the murmured vocal and muffled sound, used to be celebrated for their opacity. Now they're transparent, too much in focus, and they suffer in the glare.
Pearl Jam, though youngsters next to R.E.M., possess a similar godfatherlike mien, stemming from leader Eddie Vedder's role as Generation X's walking guilty conscience, atoning for real and imagined sins and recovering from real and imagined victimization. Vedder is not untalented, and he has a powerful backing ensemble to boot. But the band's new Vitalogy is less an album than a position paper. It is, of course, hard being a conscientious rock star these days--not only have bands like R.E.M. and Nirvana raised the standards, but Aerosmith, the only American band with as much sales muscle as Pearl Jam, is today's alternate model. But where Steven Tyler still only has one thing on his mind (and enough money to hire people to write songs about it for him), Vedder recoils from sex in favor of more pressing concerns. On Vitalogy they include the digital age ("Spin the Black Circle," an ode to vinyl, yawn), oppression generally ("Whipping"), men ("Nothingman"), and, oh yeah, the problems of being a rock star.
The difference between Pearl Jam and the rest of their Seattle cohorts is the difference between hard and heavy: Where Soundgarden and Nirvana shake your walls with their bottom, Pearl Jam's sound is all on top, informed most distinctively by Stone Gossard's barking guitar. Pearl Jam know this, and like Monster their new record emanates self-consciousness. The toughest songs ("Last Exit," "Spin the Black Circle," "Whipping") translate merely as rave-ups, obscuring the grandeur of earlier tracks like "Alive" or "Black." Vedder and the rest of the band are at their best when they're feeling balladic. On "Better Man," despite slightly received-sounding lyrics about a woman stuck with a loser guy, Vedder (given sole writer credit) displays some unusual vocal subtlety and a sophisticated sense of song construction. But watch out otherwise. "Bugs" is of a piece with Vs.'s "Rats" (what's next? "Tadpoles"?), one of about three too many novelty tracks on the record. (Another consists of Vedder spelling the word "privacy" over and over.) "Immortality" sounds like it's about Cobain too. ("Cannot find the comfort in this world," a character says), but it also seems to be about Eddie. I take lines like "'Holier than thou' (How? This is a myth)" as Vedder sniping at his critics. Calm down, Sparky. Elsewhere he's too self-consciously the voice of a generation: In "Not for You," the teen spirit he articulates is a resentful and jealous one. "All that's sacred comes from youth," he sings with a tinge of early, equally callow Dylan:
With no power, nothing to do!
I still remember, why don't you?
This is not for you
You can have it, Eddie. Now shut up.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Keith Carter, Lance Mercer.