What does it sound like?:
In 1994, an extremely large audience eagerly awaited the next R.E.M. album. The jangly pop of Out Of Time and the fragile melodies of Automatic For The People had established the band as mainstream, making all four members multimillionaires. Monster, when it came, gave their fans was a migraine of brutal guitar noise. Even so, sales held up well, the tour was a hit and two singles made the UK top ten but, overall, the reaction was mixed and Monster marked the beginning of their commercial and artistic decline.
If the transition between Out Of Time to Automatic For The People represents that between life and death, Monster is an act of self-harm. It quite deliberately turns away from the pin-sharp clarity and adulation of its predecessors and embraces distortion, obfuscation and artifice. Michael Stipe was bereft from the recent loss of his friends, River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain, and his writing contribution was blocked. He spent most of the time in a corner of the studio, away from his colleagues, contemplating his sexuality and his place in the world, his voice buried deep in the mix. Stipe came out during the album’s promotion but one listen to I Don’t Sleep I Dream, Bang And Blame or Tongue, reveals as much as anyone needs to know. Meanwhile, Peter Buck enjoyed a grungefest, crunching T.Rex riffs with raw punk attitude. He sounds as though he’s having the time of his life, stamping on effects pedals with abandon. Mike Mills and Bill Berry add garage band power to their natural musicality. Berry was the most keen to rock and tour again. Mills, health wise, struggled to keep up, the slowing towards the end of What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? being caused by his near collapse from appendicitis. There were bitter, nasty rows. Relationships were badly strained. Monster is the sound of a band, irritated with each other, losing their sense of direction but still able to tap into certain elements that made them great in the first place.
Whereas Automatic For The People is emotionally involving, Monster is detached. Its lyrics drip with creepy, transactional sex without a single iota of sexiness. Apart from Crush With Eyeliner, a convincing attempt at New York Dolls Glam, Stipe’s ironic wit is sadly absent. The basic tracks were recorded as live but the rhythm section seems disconnected from the guitars. The song structure is the grammar of punk, three chords, heavy riffs, no real melody, but they don’t actually rock. The tone is pitched mostly at sneering defiance but the result is largely weary and care-worn. Buck described it as ‘Rock in inverted commas’, almost as though R.E.M. were too inhibited, too self aware to go full garage. The two quietest tracks are the most odd. Strange Currencies uses the same chords as Everybody Hurts to create its desperate, ugly sister. Tongue, as a piano ballad, is incongruous enough but its falsetto vocal takes it into outright weird territory. Let Me In, a tribute to Kurt Cobain, is the only track that truly resonates. Monster is not an easy album to love. Even the most ardent R.E.M. fan is unlikely to have revisited it often over the last twenty-five years. Tension within band members can often lead to great art. Not in this case.
The anniversary superdeluxe package is five CDs and a Blu-Ray: the remastered album, a Scott Litt remix, a disc of fifteen largely instrumental demos that bear little relation to the tracks on the album, two discs of live recordings from the Monster tour and the Blu-Ray of 5.1 Surroundsound, hi-resolution stereo plus six videos of the singles and the 1996 concert film, Road Movie. Chris Bilheimer revisits his cover art, turning it blue. Mathew Perpetua writes new sleeve notes, including interviews of the band, especially Stipe, attempting to explain themselves. The remix, by original producer, Scott Litt, pushes the guitars back and the vocals forward, which somewhat misses the point. It is clean, emphasising the Pop hidden within the Rock, sounding more ripe for the radio. It is, at least, quite different to the original mix and is far less likely to induce a migraine. The live performances are really good. R.E.M. were a very effective band who knew how to make the most of live theatre. The Monster songs are so raw, they almost bleed, so much so that the older, better songs come as a blessed relief. The live discs deserve a stand alone release. Vinyl fans have to make do with a double LP of the remaster as one disc and the remix as the other. There’s also an equivalent 2CD set. These come with a fold-out poster. There could have been an additional disc of the singles’ B sides which were instrumentals and different live performances. Only a true completist might complain.
Overall, it’s a disquieting package, a bit like the album itself. It has good intentions but only some of it works, like an expensive three course meal where the starter and side dish are more than satisfactory but the rest is average. In that sense, the superdeluxe box is a fitting representation of the album.
What does it all *mean*?
R.E.M. are a band whose heyday coincided with peak CD and CD, as a format, must still be a going concern in America.
Goes well with…
The Monster 25th Anniversary set is the biggest of all the R.E.M. Anniversary sets so far. If it has a purpose, it needs to be on the shelf nestling with the others.
1st. November 2019
Might suit people who like…
CDs, R.E.M. and loud guitars.