[Review] R.E.M.: Monster (1994)

A re-energized R.E.M. rediscovers their alternative-rock roots.

Kronomyth 9.0: It was a rock monster.

Beginning with Out of Time, I stopped telling people I was a fan of R.E.M. Beginning with Monster, I started to tell people I was a fan of R.E.M. again. It was the video for What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? that brought me back on the bandwagon. There was Michael Stipe in his ubercool Sneetches’ shirt, bald and bored, ripping the medium that made them stars (television) with all the punk rock energy I barely remembered. Turns out they hadn’t sold out or bought in, but merely rented rock’s crown. On the other side of the Atlantic, the same thing was happening with U2 (compare “Lemon” to “King of Comedy”), who was biting the hand with a record called Zooropa.

Monster is R.E.M.’s most straightahead rock record to date, trading in the overproduced and overwrought sound of their last two albums for bare-bones rock drenched in reverb and punched up with the unsinkable rhythms of Bill Berry and Mike Mills. Highlights this time include “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” Crush with Eyeliner, Bang and Blame, Strange Currencies and Circus Envy. Although the album was an unqualified success in terms of sales, topping the UK and US charts and going quadruple platinum in the US (yawn, again), the conscious decision to move away from the “pretty” music of their past was received by some as ungrateful and unwelcome. As Stipe sings in “I Took Your Name,” “I don’t wanna be Iggy Pop but if that’s what it takes, hey.”

While he’s a far cry from Iggy Pop, Stipe seemed to be channeling the same love-hate relationship with his audience. He’s not alone, however; Peter Buck is every inch the James Williamson to Michael’s Iggy, and the sound he generates with his guitar is nothing short of understated genius. Monster rocks, which is something I haven’t felt about R.E.M. in a long time. It’s not grunge at all, but a return to the garage/punk rock that Buck & company have always admired, tempered with a desire for tasteful experimentation (Tongue, Let Me In). For those lulled to sleep during the last few albums, Monster is a wake-up call from R.E.M.

Original elpee version

A1. What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? (3:59)
A2. Crush with Eyeliner (4:39)
A3. King of Comedy (3:39)
A4. I Don’t Sleep, I Dream (3:25)
A5. Star 69 (3:07)
A6. Strange Currencies (3:51)
B1. Tongue (4:08)
B2. Bang and Blame (4:48)
B3. I Took Your Name (4:07)
B4. Let Me In (3:27)
B5. Circus Envy (4:14)
B6. You (4:52)

All songs by Bill Berry/Peter Buck/Mike Mills/Michael Stipe.

The Players

Bill Berry (drums, backing vocals), Peter Buck (guitar, organ), Mike Mills (bass guitar, piano, organ, backing vocals), Michael Stipe (lead vocals) with Anë (backing vocals on B2), Sally Dworski (backing vocals on A3/B2), Lou (backing vocals on B2), Thurston Moore (backing vocals on A2), Rain Phoenix (backing vocals on B2), Lynda Stipe (backing vocals on B2). Produced by Scott Litt & R.E.M.; engineered by Pat McCarthy.

The Pictures

Art direction and design by Michael Stipe, Chris Bilheimer, Tom Recchion. Photographs by Michael Stipe, Chris Bilheimer, Keith Carter, Jem Cohen, Brook Dillon. Bear image by Tilly Balloon Company. Migraine Boy by Greg Fiering.

The Plastic

Released on compact disc, elpee and cassette on September 26, 1994 in the US, the UK, Australia and Germany (Warner Bros., 45740-2/1/4), Canada (Warner Bros., CDW-45740/24 57404) and Japan (Warner Bros., WPCR-101) with innersleeve. Reached #1 on the US charts (RIAA-certified 4x platinum record) and #1 on the UK charts.

  1. Re-released on expanded CD+DVD in 2005 in the UK (Warner Bros., 73949-2) with bonus DVD.
  2. Re-packaged with Green on 2CD in 2008 in Australia (Warner Bros., 498375).

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