PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

A Shirt of Violent Green: R.E.M.'s 'Monster' Gets the Deluxe Reissue Treatment

Photo: Jem Cohen / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Twenty-five years after the release of R.E.M.'s Monster, a lavish boxed set of the Georgia quartet's most controversial album creates a much-deserved opportunity for reassessment.

Monster (25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
R.E.M.

Craft Recordings

1 November 2019

In 1992, R.E.M. released what many consider to be the crown jewel of their recorded output: the dazzling, stylistically diverse Automatic for the People. Orchestral touches, creative acoustic arrangements, ballads, and a sprinkling of rockers – not to mention a handful of bona fide hit singles – made it arguably the band's most accomplished moment and won raves from both fans and critics.

But R.E.M. have never been satisfied with the idea of continuing along a steady, predictable path. With that in mind, their next album, 1994's Monster, saw the band turn up the amps and move distortion and effects front and center. In many ways, it's the antithesis of Automatic: blunt hammer strikes from a group known more for precision instrumentation, meditative moments, and the college-rock staple of jangly, Byrds-inspired guitars. Critics mostly applauded the change of pace, while a lot of fans were taken aback by the new approach. It was considered by many to be a folly, a misstep. It's been pointed out on more than one occasion that Monster later became infamous for its common presence in the bargain bins of used CD stores. Rarely has an album that debuted at the top of the U.S. album charts been so quickly sent back into the retail world.

In keeping with their tradition of reissuing R.E.M. albums on their respective 25-year anniversaries, Craft Recordings – who previously went all out with new editions of Automatic for the People, Out of Time, Green and Document – have outdone themselves with a lavish, deluxe six-disc version of this highly misunderstood and absolutely essential entry in the R.E.M. canon. It's been said that Monster was R.E.M.'s reaction to the then-massively popular grunge movement. Vocalist Michael Stipe admits as much in the reissue's generous liner notes, saying that "the whole Seattle scene had exploded and felt so vibrant and alive. In a way, Monster was our response to all of that." But he also adds that the inspiration of glam rock played an equally large part in the album's sound. "I liked the idea of something that was a bit removed," he says, "and glam rock always felt to me a little tongue-in-cheek…self-aware, and slightly removed."

But Monster isn't just about clinging to different genres – it also involves the idea of a band shedding its identity. "We were trying to feel like a different band," says guitarist Peter Buck. "We wanted to get away from who we were." Clearly, if the goal was for R.E.M. to hit the reset button, Monster succeeds massively. The deluxe edition documents all aspects of the transformation. The first disc is the original, 12-song album, while disc two is a collection of demos. Disc three is a new remix of the entire album, and the fourth and fifth discs make up a 1995 Chicago concert. The final disc is a Blu-ray that features a 5.1 surround sound mix, a hi-resolution audio mix, a concert film, and various music videos. If you want to immerse yourself in a true Monster experience, this is the way to do it.

The remix disc may be most highly anticipated among hardcore R.E.M. fans because it gives them a chance to hear the album in a new, possibly more palatable light. This is partially true. Producer Scott Litt was never satisfied with the grungy, claustrophobic sound of the original mix (and was not afraid to make his feelings known to the band at the time) and vowed to remix it as he saw fit eventually. This deluxe edition is Litt's chance, and as a reimagining of the album, it's not completely different from the original; the differences range from unnoticeable to subtle to occasionally striking. Stipe's vocals are higher in the mix, so he's not so much drowning in a sea of guitars. Almost everything sounds fuller and textured. Speaking personally, my one major gripe with the remix is that the new version of the opening track (and first single) "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" eliminates Buck's staccato guitar chord slash that frequently appears throughout the original version. As one of the defining sonic moments of the album, taking this out seems like a weird choice. It's like remixing Radiohead's "Creep" and taking out Jonny Greenwood's iconic "cha-chunk, cha-chunk" pre-chorus guitar attack.

But I digress. Making an A/B comparison between the original and remixed tracks can be a fun, uber-fan project. But it also allows naysayers to reassess and the album that, for all its occasionally forbidding production choices, contains a great deal of highly imaginative and inspired songwriting. "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" is still a catchy slice of garage-rock fun. The glam swagger of "Crush With Eyeliner" sounds better than ever – Buck's strobe guitar effects are paired up with a more subtle, measured guitar track that was previously unheard in the original version. More menacing songs like "Star 69" and "Circus Envy" certainly sound nothing like the elegant, piano-led balladry of "Nightswimming" or the stark minor-key dirge of "Drive". But their urgency speaks to the band's punk roots and probably wouldn't sound totally out-of-place on a Murmur-era setlist, albeit with the guitars turned down a couple of notches.

Despite the wall-of-guitars nature of Monster (even in the remixed version), the album sees the band exploring some more nuanced styles. "Strange Currencies" is a ballad that mines the same musical territory as Automatic's "Everybody Hurts" and was influenced, according to Stipe, by the late INXS vocalist Michael Hutchence. Stipe refers to Hutchence in the liner notes as "a great pop star, astonishing frontman, and a brilliant lyricist". On the weirdly lovable "Tongue", Stipe injects a falsetto into the soulful musical landscape of a song told from the viewpoint of a woman in an emotionally abusive relationship. "Call my name / Here I come," he croons over deceptively simple piano and organ chords. "Your last ditch lay / Will I never learn?" Aside from being somewhat of an oasis in the middle of more guitar-driven tracks, "Tongue" also sounds uncannily like a rough draft of "At My Most Beautiful" from the band's 1998 album Up (minus the Pet Sounds orchestral fussiness).

But the more guitar-oriented tracks are hardly devoid of emotional punches. On "Let Me In", Stipe is accompanied solely by slashing electric guitar (courtesy of bassist Mike Mills) in a song written as a tribute to the recently deceased Kurt Cobain. The song's power, especially to anyone familiar with its initial inspiration, is palpable. "It's Michael's cathartic release in response to the loss of a good friend and someone we all felt creatively aligned with," says Mills in the liner notes. "We had lost a friend and an ally." The remix omits Buck's haunting organ coda, underscoring the song's stark nature.

As far as the Monster demos go, the collection is a curious one in that – unlike the demos for the Automatic for the People reissue – none of the demos morphed into Monster songs. Most of them have a "classic" R.E.M. sound, sounding like somewhat generic versions of the band's earlier works. A few of the tracks ended up on post-Monster albums and projects: "Revolution" became a staple of the band's 1995 Monster tour setlist and was included on the soundtrack to the 1997 film Batman & Robin. A couple of other songs found life on later albums like Around the Sun and Accelerate.

The 1995 tour supporting Monster was a huge success but plagued with health scares for the band. Drummer Bill Berry collapsed on stage in Switzerland due to a brain aneurysm. Mills had to undergo intestinal surgery, and Stipe also went under the knife to have a hernia repaired. As a result, multiple dates were rescheduled, and the tour – the band's first since 1989 – was ultimately a success. The discs from the Chicago concert show a band revitalized by the new material, which meshes surprisingly well with the older songs. Two of the songs from this show – "Undertow" and "Departure" – ended up on the 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi, an album written and recorded entirely on the Monster tour. To say this was a creatively fertile time for the band is a massive understatement.

The video elements on the Monster reissue are satisfying but not exactly hard-to-find nuggets from an undiscovered vault. The previously released concert film Road Movie is a solid, no-frills recording of their 1995 run of shows at the Omni in Atlanta, and the music videos – including clips for six Monster singles - are a fun trip back in time. Die-hard fans might pine for the inclusion of Rough Cut, a fly-on-the-wall backstage documentary from the tour, but that's easy enough to find on YouTube.

Monster may seem, at first glance, like an anomaly in the R.E.M. catalog, but in reality, it fits in exactly with the way the band has always done things. These four musicians (pared down to three after Berry's 1997 departure) were always looking to expand their sound, pushing themselves further and constantly confounding expectations. But in the end, it was always about doing what they felt sounded right. "You have to make music for yourselves," says Mills in the liner notes. "You have to be happy with what you're doing, and though you want people to like it and come along for the ride, that's all up to them. You can't force them, and you can't pander." With love, as the song goes, come strange currencies.

9

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.