About a Song: R.E.M.’s MONSTER at 25
It was to be the band’s “promised electric album,” and perhaps even their own Actung Baby. Instead, It ended up being a record of R.E.M. dragging themselves into the guitar driven monster mash that defined early 90s rock music. Aptly titled MONSTER, the album showcased Peter Buck at his most grungy, and noisy. While Micheal Stipe forever overshadowed the band with his anti pop star personality and unique lyrics, which were often as thought provoking and intelligent as they were quirky, MONSTER was Buck’s show. In the long history of the band’s music though, MONSTER wouldn’t end up having the staying power of Automatic For The People (1992) or the deep lyricism and musical balance that the often overlooked masterpiece New Adventures in HI-FI (1996) would embody. For one moment though, perhaps just a fraction of a moment too late, R.E.M. would be a full on guitar fuzz driven rock band.
MONSTER was a hard break with R.E.M.’s, to that point, most commercially successful sound. Their preceding two albums, Out of Time (1991), and Automatic for The People, were decidedly out of step with the biggest rock albums of their respective release years. Mandolins, acoustic guitars, and piano drove the band’s sound at the time. These albums were a culmination of where R.E.M. was heading musically though, pretty much ever since 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant album. U2 broke with their signature sound in 1991 with the aforementioned Actung Baby and their mega media driven and irony laced Zoo TV Tour, to mega commercial and critical success. R.E.M. being U2’s junior by only a few years, appeared poised to enter their ironic stage a few years later than Bono and the boys, except irony really isn’t something that seemed fit for R.E.M. While there is no doubt that Stipe’s lyrics often reflect an ironic bent, especially when they are dedicated to speaking truth to power, for too long R.E.M. was the rock solid realistic/naturalistic champion of alt-rock. R.E.M. never rose to the level that U2 did commercially, thusly never becoming the target of vicious parody like that propagated by the likes of Ben Stiller. Stipe managed to avoid the rock n roll savior role, often erroneously attributed to Bono. Bono HAD to slough that skin, and did so brilliantly under the ironic guise of his Zoo TV stage persona, The Fly. There was no need for Stipe to don gold lame pants on stage though. He already was wearing skirts and mascara off and on for years. Been there done that, and more. Stipe’s gold lame pants were an evolution whereas Bono’s gold lame suits were a revolution. Both uses of the silly fabric are good for rock music, they just both seemed to occur a little too close to each other at the time.
R.E.M.’s MONSTER ended up not being the band’s Achtung Baby. They already had their reinvention album with Out of TIme. So, to many fans like myself, MONSTER felt like an attempt to pull off another reinvention in the style of Achtung Baby, that ended up slightly dating the band in the then supersonically evolving world of early 90s rock. MONSTER already sounded old when compared to the emerging post grunge bands that were starting to define the world of rock music, and it had nothing in common with the sound of burgeoning industrial and industrial metal bands like NIN and Marilyn Manson, both of which were either scoring or about to score major commercial breakthroughs themselves. What MONSTER did end up being was a document of a band at the height of their popularity, striving to be popular. Paradoxically, this rather ironic stance-for a band that never needed to indulge in irony- lead to the recording of pretty powerful songs. “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” packs a punch that hits just as hard as any of the hardest rock songs in their catalogue. “Crush With Eyeliner” falls into the same category. Thick and sludgy sounding, it still manages to bounces along with all the effervescence that one expects from an R.E.M. song. “King of Comedy,” where Stipe gets as close to irony as he can with his lyrics, is a well written song that unfortunately suffers from dance floor beat fever. Remove the drum machine effects and you’ve got a solid rocker here. Also unfortunately, the drum machine effects aren’t removed in the remixed version of the album recently released with the remastered version of the original album.
Original producer Scott Litt returned to the album to remaster and remix it for a special 25th Anniversary Re-Release. Pumping up the sound of the original master tapes, the original mix sounds better than it ever has. The remix though, which turns down the album’s best aspect, namely Buck’s guitars, and brings Stipe’s vocals to the forefront, doesn’t do much to improve the album’s weaker tracks (“Tongue,” “I Took Your Name,” or “You”). Litt’s remix actually almost ruins “King of Comedy” by enhancing the song’s original missteps, and completely does ruin the brilliant “Let Me In” by erasing the feedback and distortion. Worst of all though, the remix of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” edits out Stipe’s ad lib of “Don’t fuck with me,” which takes the place of “…the frequency” at the end of the original mix of the song. While it’s true that Stipe’s lyrics are more discernible amongst the instrumentation, wasn’t figuring out Stipe’s often muddled and sometimes washed out lyrical delivery part of the mystical appeal of R.E.M.’s music?
Notwithstanding the artistic missteps that plague MONSTER (both the original and remixed versions), the album remains yet another defining, if not quite artistically sublime, moment in the history of one of the world’s biggest bands (when being such a thing was still possible). Whatever doubts crept into the minds of R.E.M. fans about their favorite band’s songwriting ability and artistic direction were quickly dispelled by R.E.M.’s next album, 1996’s brilliant New Adventures in HI-FI. The experiments with loudness that R.E.M. indulged in on MONSTER would come to fruition on HI-FI. R.E.M. would find a balance that they would never find again (with the possible exception of their career twilight album Accelerate). Songs like “Wake Up Bomb,” “New Test Leper,” and “Leave,” would more fully engage the irony of the age and actualize the evolution of Buck’s guitar playing and Stipe’s lyrics better than anything on MONSTER would. If it took MONSTER to birth New Adventures in HI-FI, then I’m more than glad MONSTER happened, warts and all.