Concerning R.E.M. there are two eras: Albums released before 1994 and albums released after 1994. Generally speaking, the early era consisted of angsty, artsy, misunderstood college rock, crafted for know-it-all-twenty somethings in the late 80s who liked to have night long debates on communism and the importance of meta-culture in society. The later years consisted of sentimental, heavy hearted, yet poetic, art rock that was slightly edgier than most Top 40 acts, but far too delicate to be labeled rock n roll, made for the same know-it-all-twenty somethings who were now in their late 40s and too life weary to debate about anything other that what’s a better pass time: reading a seventeenth century poem, or admiring a piece of sixteenth century art. What about 1994? The middle of those two vastly different eras? “Monster”. It’s been twenty years since the release of this album and most fans of the band are torn. Is it a good record or is it a bad record?
With “Monster”, R.E.M. decided they wanted to make a real rock record. Distorted guitars, clattering drums, dirty grooves, and little other dubs or production tricks. Just straight up, four guys playing a hand full of songs. No gimmicks. They succeeded too! The album’s lead single “What’s The Frequency Kenneth” with it’s buzzy distorted guitars, raw production and backwards guitar solo, made it was obvious the band was headed in a slightly different direction and “Losing My Religion” was now miles away.
The secret ingredient within “Monster” was the fact the band was recording the album not as themselves. They set out to play fast and loose with their own mythos. Yes it was still R.E.M. but wearing a Big Arena Rock Star costume. Larger than life guitars and muddy grooves replaces the band’s usual soft, and delicate ‘tortured artist’ persona. There is a new confidence found in being someone else and they took full advantage of this new angle with songs like the almost-punk “Star 69” the groovy, sort of sleazy “Crush With Eyeliner” and the gritty, frantic and almost creepy “King Of Comedy” (featuring Thurston Moore!).
Not only were R.E.M. pretending to be this big buzzy garage band for the album, but each and every song is treated as if it were told from the perspective of a different character. Leave it to Michael Stipe to take something as simple and genuine and turn it into something complex and multi-layered. Lyrically the album explores the darker side of human characters. Obsessive relationships, not taking no for an answer, superficial crushing, political manipulation for the sake of attention, you name it, if it’s dark and seedy, “Monster” talks about it, all behind the wall of guitars and beautiful noise, so it never feels like you are being preached to. One of Stipe’s characters on the record is in the song “Tongue” in which he is singing as a woman who is constantly being used in a physical relationship, yet can’t find her way out of the man’s charms despite knowing how wrong the situation is. That sort of lyrical expertise is what really sets “Monster” apart from other garage records at the time. Yes it’s noisey and washed out, but there is still plenty of art to be had. It’s not all distorted riffs and grooves either. Things take a slower, intimate turn with the already mentioned “Tongue” and continues with emotional album closer “You” which is about Kurt Cobain, who’s suicide happened just a few months before this album’s release
This was actually one of the first non-Beatles records I had owned as a kid. In the early 90s, my parents were in one of those music-by-mail clubs where you would get ten cds for the price of one if you promise to buy three cds within three years or whatever. They would always let my brother, sister and I pick out an album each. I remember liking the song “It’s The End Of The World” from R.E.M. so I chose “Monster” thinking it would be on there. I was ten years old and really didn’t have a legitimate taste in music for myself other than The Beatles or whatever my parents listened to in the car, so this was a big deal for me. Buying my OWN album that I picked out, to listen to on MY stereo, in MY room. Thinking back, this was a pivotal moment in my life, shaping what would be my taste in music, media and culture.
I remember putting the cassette in my walkman and listening to the full album in it’s entirety in one sitting. The faster songs were cool the slower songs were weird but unique enough to keep me entertained. Being ten years old, just about all of the lyrical content went right over my head but when I heard the song “Strange Currencies” I felt this overwhelming sense of sadness. I didn’t know the first thing about failed relationships, breakups, or unrequited love, but from the first line “I don’t know why you’re mean to me when I call you on the telephone” and later when he begs for a second, third and fourth chance, I knew THIS is what heartache sounded like. It was sentimental, haunting, and even to my puny naive little mind, it was touching. I knew that I never wanted to feel the feelings the singer was expressing. It was a music + emotion connection that makes listening to albums that much more enjoyable. That stuck with me and still today it’s my favorite track from R.E.M.
Despite debuting at number one on Billboard upon it’s release, “Monster” is a mixed case when it comes to R.E.M. fans. For the most part they sort of draw the line there and either love everything before it, hate everything after, or vice versa. It yielded quite a few hit singles as well as the last time R.E.M. had a Top 40 hit, with the song “Bang and Blame”. It might not be the strongest or most coherent record in their roster, but it still deserves much more love than it has gotten over the years. My own personal nostalgia not withstanding, “Monster” has aged quite nicely and I think you hated it upon it’s release, you will find that it’s not essentially as bad as you remembered. The distorted guitars and sarcastic lyrics might have been pretentious and gimmicky to you in 1994, but I assure you that giving it a second chance now twenty years later, you will see that it’s just as poetic and genius as the albums that came before and after it.