Full disclosure: the first thing we heard from this album was catching the last few seconds of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” on MTV, back when they used to play music videos in between Rocking the Vote and Real World marathons. The thing is, we didn’t know it was R.E.M; we saw the bald guy and just assumed it was Midnight Oil.
It was, and still is a pretty good tune, complete with garbled lyrics and a backwards guitar solo. It certainly rocks, setting the tone for the rest of the album. Monster is a striking contrast to its mostly acoustic predecessor, and it’s been suggested that the deaths of friends Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix fueled the anger that inspired them to turn up the volume. Whatever the truth is, the album is an assault, and it hurts.
The same tremolo guitar continues throughout the album, starting with “Crush With Eyeliner” and its unfortunate cameo by Thurston Moore, itself a gesture that if you don’t get it, you’re just not cool. “King Of Comedy” sputters along with a monotonic vocal and flat drumming. “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” sounds like a work in progress, with typical arpeggios and a lack of melody. “Star 69” is a step in the right direction, a straight-ahead punk rocker with a title that too many people get, lessening any mystery. Critics pointed to “Strange Currencies” as a relative of “Everybody Hurts”, which is lazy. It appears to be something of a love song.
The same can be said for “Tongue”, sung in an unfortunate falsetto over piano and organ. It wanders along before finally petering out. “Bang And Blame” is the bastard child of “Losing My Religion” and “Orange Crush”, which is probably why it’s catchy. (Actually, we wouldn’t mind hearing more of the snippet that appears before the next song, “I Took Your Name”, which sounds too much like everything else on the album.) “Let Me In” is supposed to be the Cobain tribute, but relies on pure loudness and no drums. “Circus Envy” might benefit from a mix that reduces the snottiness quotient on the guitars, and “You” is a decent closer (they were always good at those) but again, the pulsating fuzz is a distraction.
We’re not alone in our disdain of Monster; you can find several duplicate copies of it in any used CD rack. We have tried to like this album and have failed miserably. It’s possible that these songs would stand out better if they weren’t all on the same album; taken all together they make a noisy mess. There are people who still stand behind this album, but we can’t.
This conundrum was addressed for the album’s 25th anniversary by pairing the original Monster mix with a brand new remix by producer Scott Litt. For the most part, the album is an easier listen, with a lot of the abrasion sanded off. Some of the overhauls are striking; Thurston Moore is way down the mix on “Crush With Eyeliner”, “Strange Currencies” has room to breathe, “Let Me In” is stripped of all reverb. Overall, the mix helps the songs stand out on their own; the lyrics are discernible and the drums sound terrific. However, it doesn’t make us dislike the album less. (The Deluxe Edition added a complete Chicago show from 1995 on two discs, as well as a disc of demos. Many of these are instrumental and sound very promising, somewhere between the jangle of Reckoning and the open sound of Lifes Rich Pageant, busting the mythology that they began the sessions armed with distortion pedals. That the ideas went unused is just as frustrating as the album that resulted.)
R.E.M. Monster (1994)—2
2019 25th Anniversary Edition: same as 1994, plus 12 extra tracks (Deluxe adds another 40 tracks and Blu-ray)