6 - 4
Coincidentally, I just wrote at length about this album, defending it here. Here is the crux of my argument:
Monster was not a lackluster album in 1994 and time has only amplified its strengths and its unique place in R.E.M.’s catalog. Perhaps it’s ultimately, as always, a matter of taste, but while I did—and do—dearly love Automatic, I think the praise it receives is as excessive as the hits Monster takes. On some of the softer, slower songs the band—especially the singer—lapse into preciousness and an earnestness that seems shoehorned in for maximum effect (“Everybody Hurts”, I’m talking to you). Early R.E.M. was irresistible in part because it was so inscrutable: Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics and moon pie-mouthed vocals, along with Buck’s ever-jangling guitar, gave the band a distinctive, inimitable sound. Eventually the drums were worked more prominently into the mix, almost but not quite over-compensating on albums like <>Lifes Rich Pageant and Document.
The production was crystalline on Green and Automatic, while Monster, by comparison, could be considered a step backward. Except for the fact that the heft and fury is so obviously intentional: Peter Buck should always be celebrated for being the anti guitar hero, content to “merely” establish—and embellish—the songs with his multi-faceted but always understated approach. On Monster he strides brazenly to the forefront and the results are magnificent; he even allows himself the luxury of a few solos! His guitar sound is not only dominant, it is often delightfully distorted and laden with feedback. It is entirely understandable why this less kind, less gentle R.E.M. was not for everyone, but that has little bearing on why this album is incredibly satisfying on its own terms.
The least great of the first five, which means it’s still great and, again, compared to most bands, this would be career-defining work. A bit muddled in places, maybe even a tad uninspired in others (probably due more to exhaustion than effort). Yet some of the band’s best work is found within. Does it get better than “Driver 8”? Everyone knows it; everyone has heard it a million times. But it still feels fresh and totally unique as R.E.M. is simultaneously creating and perfecting an original sound, and while this song practically screams “The South”, it is also all-world.
You can almost pinpoint the moment R.E.M. was poised for greatness. “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” seems to sum up everything great the group had done to this point. It has a frenzied concentration, like the band is trying to fit a longer song with extra lyrics into under three minutes (in a good way of course), and is honing in on that totally fresh and original sound. You can hear the fully-formed breakthrough records steaming down the tracks, and yet it could be argued that the group never sounded this great again.
This is where it gets tricky. I look at an album like Reckoning and think: only at number four? It almost seems insulting, but it had to go somewhere and it ain’t better than the next three. This, to me —and I’m certain I’m not alone—is perhaps the R.E.M. album that would be much more popular and beloved (if that’s possible) had the band split after making it. We would be asking: listen to that confidence, the growth just since the first album—R.E.M. could have owned the next decade. Fortunately, the band did not split and it did own the next decade.