R.E.M.’s ninth studio album is arguably the one that inspires most debate amongst fans. SO, twenty five years on from its release, how does it stand the test of time?
Released when they were the undisputed ‘biggest band on the planet’, Monster marked a departure for the band. Those who had only become fans in the Warner Bros. era and hadn’t bothered to investigate the early stuff viewed them as either a quirky alternative rock/pop group with an edge (Green, Out Of Time) or gloomy, sombre acoustic guitar strummers (Automatic For The People). Of course, R.E.M. were always both of these things, but neither description begins to cover the true gamut of their music. Having gradually grown their audience through the I.R.S. years, selling incrementally more with each record, and playing incrementally larger venues as they toured seemingly without respite, they had broken beyond the of the college rock circuit, and by the time the released Document in 1987 had seeped slowly into the mainstream, without ever scoring a significant hit until ‘The One I Love.’
The band’s hugely popular appearance on MTV Unplugged, followed by the acoustic, string-laden and introspective Automatic… had turned them into the world’s most unlikely stadium folk rock band. The band often expressed a certain frustration with their image, most notably Peter Buck, always just a punk rocker at heart, his tastes always leaning more towards hardcore bands than, say, The Byrds. “R.E.M. is probably the wimpiest band I like” he once said. Having finished all promotional duties for the massively successful Automatic…, the band held a meeting in Mexico where, collectively, they made a conscious decision that the next record would be very different. With the band also deciding to tour for the first time since the year-long tour in support of 1989’s Green, having finally decided to take a break from the road, producer Scott Litt encouraged the band to record as they performed, with much of the album to be recorded live in the studio, with the band in the same room, standing up, like they would be on stage, to rediscover the feel of live performance.
Monster was recorded in, variously, New Orleans, Atlanta, Miami and Los Angeles and, leading up to the album’s release, the focus was very much on the promised change of direction. Michael Stipe promised it would be “rockier, raunchier” than their recent work, and Peter Buck wanted to tell anyone who’d listen about the range of new fuzz pedals he’d bought, as well as his new amp with a built-in tremolo effect. Fans who had listened to Document or seen the band’s energetic early live shows wouldn’t have been too surprised at the band wanting to rock out once more, but, when first single ‘What’s The Frequency Kenneth?’landed, few could have expected quite what they heard as the brash, grungy guitars blasted out the power chord opening. The video revealed a change in image too, with Stipe’s new shaven-headed look, and the formerly studious-looking Mike Mills dressed in a flamboyant Jimmy Page-style suite, which would become a trademark during the subsequent tour. This also signalled another intent of the band with this album; to have fun. Mills said in the run up to album’s release “..we had been exploring acoustic instruments, trying to use the piano and mandolin…and you come back to the fact that playing loud electric guitar music is as fun as music can be.”
‘Kenneth…’ proved to be the biggest selling single they had had since ‘Losing My Religion’, its loud and scuzzy riffs, yet accessibly poppy melody bode well for the full album. Upon release, however, the response, although generally positive, was mixed. Gone were the mandolins and acoustic guitars and lush, layered arrangements, in came the distortion pedals, the electric guitars and simpler song structures, with only a minimal amount of overdubs. Many long-time supporters of the band, both fans and critics lamented the passing of both the textured sound of the last few albums and the jangly, Rickenbacker sound of the early years.
That didn’t stop the album selling by the bucket load, though. In its first few weeks of release, Monster outsold both Out Of Time and Automatic…, suggesting just as many fans loved the glam rock swagger of songs like ‘Crush With Eyeliner’, and ‘I Took Your Name.’
A quarter of a century (doesn’t that make you feel old?) on, the album represents a strange milestone in the bands output. Many fans view the band as having two distinct time periods; the I.R.S. years, and the Warner Bros years. But the band’s lifespan could arguably be dived into two other parts; before Monster, and after Monster. Some would even go further and say the album was the beginning of the end for the group. Despite the hugely successful (other than the feakish spate of personal injuries and illness, most notably the near death of Bill Berry in Switzerland) world tour in support of the album, commercially, the band never came close to achieving the sales of their early 90’s output. More importantly, creatively, the band struggled to reach the same heights. Follow up album New Adventures In Hi-Fi is widely regarded by hardcore fans as one of their best works, but, after Berry left the band, they never came close to matching the consistent brilliance of the earlier output.
So, twenty five years on, is Monster a curio or a classic? For the most part, the songs stand the test of time. ‘King Of Comedy’ is perhaps the only track which could easily be left off the album without weakening it, while tracks like ‘Circus Envy’, ‘You’ and ‘Star 69’ are unlikely to make many people’s list of top ten R.E.M. songs, but Kenneth… remains one of their best and most popular singles, and is the only track from the album to have made it onto the 2003 compilation In Time (though given the omission of ‘Find The River’ and the inclusion of ‘All The Right Friends’, we perhaps shouldn’t place too much stock in that) as well as remaining a staple of live shows right up until the end. The sleazy bluster of ‘Crush With Eyeliner’ is irresistible, while ‘Let Me In’, Stipe’s heartfelt tribute to his friend Kurt Cobain, remains as powerful now as it was then.
An album that inspires more debate amongst R.E.M. fans than any of their other work, it is an album that again showcases the band’s willingness to take risks, to do the opposite of what people expected. And, regardless of whether you love it or hate it, one thing is undeniable, Monster is a landmark R.E.M. album, and one that people will still be talking about in another twenty five years.