It Starts with an Earthquake: R.E.M.’s Monster

Warner Bros.

Whether you’re a “first generation” (IRS years) or “second generation” (Warner Bros. years) R.E.M. fan, you likely have a strong opinion of Monster, and that opinion is more than likely a negative one. In fact, it seems the negative feelings toward Monster have only multiplied and intensified in the 14 years since its release. Monster’s constant presence in used CD bins across the nation is all the proof you’ll need that the album has become a bit of a punch line.

Yet from the moment I first heard it in 1994, I’ve had nothing but unrepentant love for Monster. I fully admit that there is a nostalgic element to this. I still remember the first time I saw the video for “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” — Michael Stipe poised awkwardly in front of his mic stand wearing his iconic star t-shirt while the lights flickered in and out (which wonderfully mimicked Peter Buck’s tremolo-guitar). I also sang along to “Strange Currencies” in the back of my mom’s car an embarrassing number of times.

Monster was not my first exposure to R.E.M. — that distinction goes to “Losing My Religion”, a song for which my feelings are still relatively indifferent. Due to a combination of my young age (13) and musical preferences at that time in my life (Nirvana, Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins), the star t-shirted Stipe struck a cord with me in a way that shiny, happy, lost-his-religion Stipe never could. Nevertheless, I have spent half my life being an R.E.M. fan, and I’ve consumed just about every album in their catalogue. So, at this point, I feel confident saying that Monster is unfairly maligned, and truly stands as one of their best.

When R.E.M. began recording Monster in late 1993, they were superstars. The double whammy of Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992) had made them flush with commercial, critical, and financial success. Those two albums were largely acoustic affairs, and the band hadn’t toured since 1989. Therefore, the group consensus was to be a raucous band again. While speaking with Time magazine before the album’s release, Mike Mills laid it out: “When you’re in a band long enough, you want to try different things. On past albums we had been exploring acoustic instruments, trying to use the piano and mandolin, and we did it about all we wanted to do it. And you come back to the fact that playing loud electric-guitar music is about as fun as music can be.” R.E.M. had spent the early to mid ‘80s essentially being an ace garage-rock band, so reclaiming the stature of being a formidable live band was a no-brainer. To slip back into the groove, they even went so far as to record Monster “live.” Producer Scott Litt explained his approach to Rolling Stone: “I thought since they hadn’t toured in a while, it would be good for them to get into that mind-set — you know, monitors, PA, standing up.” Despite the myriad guitar tones and effects employed on the record, overdubs were kept to a minimum.

The common refrain of Monster’s nay-sayers is that it was a crass attempt at capturing the alt-rock zeitgeist. I still fail to see how this argument holds much water, barring extreme cynicism, which has, truth be told, reached epidemic levels in rock criticism. In its review of In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003, Pitchfork casually dismisses the album: “Monster is, wisely, all but erased from the band’s discography — only “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” made the cut (although sadly not the live Letterman version with vocals by Dan Rather).” It’s not as if loud rock songs were an unprecedented move for R.E.M. Just listen to “Begin the Begin”, “Orange Crush”, “Finest Worksong”, “Ignoreland”, and dozens of other songs they recorded prior to 1994. All Music Guide’s review of Monster (2 1/2 out of 5 stars) claims that “Instead of R.E.M.’s trademark anthemic bashers, Monster offers a set of murky sludge.” It is true that R.E.M. distorted their guitars more on Monster and tried on a few new bells and whistles, but I see this more as a joyous reaction to the relatively sombre ruminations of their two previous albums than as a callous stab at fitting in. Let’s not forget that these guys counted Wire, Television, Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground as formative influences.

Naturally, the net quality of Monster’s songs has been brought into question by critics and fans. Now, of course, you either like a song or you don’t, but I believe that a good handful of Monster’s tracks belong in the R.E.M. canon. From the T. Rex strut of “Crush with Eyeliner” to the lapping, shoegaze-y waves of “Let Me In” (a tribute to Kurt Cobain), there is hardly a sub-par tune on the record, though I must admit I’ve never been partial to the flaccid dirge of “Bang and Blame” or the discotheque-isms of “King of Comedy”. But I hope we can all agree that “Strange Currencies” and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” are not just R.E.M. classics, but modern-rock classics by any measure. Even after all this time, I still get little kicks to my heart hearing Michael sing “I don’t know why you’re mean to me / When I call on the telephone / And I don’t know what you mean to me” on “Strange Currencies”.

The track most uncharacteristic of Monster is also one of its strongest: “Tongue” is a gentle sigh of a song that rolls along on little more than wheezy church-organ, some supple bass, and Stipe’s falsetto. “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” is another tender tune with Southern-soul leanings. The hat trick of “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream”, “Strange Currencies”, and “Tongue” effectively make up the beating heart of Monster and provide a strong case against critics accusing the album of being shallow or empty.

“I Took Your Name” and “Circus Envy” are a pair of side-two rockers that still shine in all their muscular glory and, as a side note, both sounded revelatory when performed on this year’s tour. “Let Me In” is a deep-cut I’ve always been particularly fond of, and see it as a precursor to New Adventures in Hi-Fi standout “Leave”. On that note, “Tongue” most definitely begot “Electrolite”. I should probably divulge that New Adventures in Hi-Fi is my favorite R.E.M. album, and I like to think of Monster as a bit of a “transitional” album. By the time New Adventures in Hi-Fi was released in 1996, R.E.M. had full command of their swaggering rock jones, and their big rock songs now felt completely natural and without artifice. However, I would argue that R.E.M. needed to make Monster to get to that point — like they had to get something out of their system. In fact, this is exactly how NME assessed the situation: “Monster sounds like the album they ‘had’ to make, to clear out their system…”

Earlier last year, the release of R.E.M.’s 14th album, Accelerate, was met with uniformly positive reviews. In many aspects, the fanfare accompanying Accelerate mirrored that of Monster: Both were stark reactions to the albums that preceded them, and both were billed as returns to the band’s “rock roots”. Incidentally, Accelerate mostly sounds like a retread of the terrain covered on Monster — a tired retread at times, but vital and inspired at others. Over the course of their tour this year, R.E.M. played about half the songs on Monster, while “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Let Me In” were played every single night. “Let Me In” was given a haunting rearrangement that replaced the original’s electric drone with an acoustic one. Each night, Peter Buck sat at the piano while Mike Mills, Scott McCaughey and Johnny Marr encircled him with acoustic guitars, and Stipe wailed his heart out.

Not only was it a knockout performance, it also proved the elasticity and longevity of the song, and the unfairness of dismissing R.E.M.’s material from Monster as unworthy of the band. There is a coarsely endearing habit of audiences to applaud quickly, but rapturously, when they hear the opening chord(s) of a beloved song. So it was obvious when the band began “Let Me In” that most in attendance didn’t have it high on their list of “songs I’m dying to hear tonight”. But after it was over, the 20,000-strong crowd responded like they had just heard “Man on the Moon”.