3. R.E.M., Monster (1994)
Several theories could be advanced about why Monster was not so warmly embraced, and why it remains the least-loved of the original band’s works. One possibility is that the previous album, Automatic for the People was so critically praised and commercially successful it made the band even more ubiquitous than they’d already been: as such, some blowback was inevitable. Another possibility is that this album was as unrefined and ugly (as if the title didn’t warn us) as anything the band had done. After the almost ethereal elegance that Automatic’s best songs attained, the contrast was perhaps too jarring for old—and especially newer, more fickle—fans. Yet another issue was the undeniable impact grunge had on everything circa 1993/94; any band (like Living Colour) that ostensibly roughed up their edges could be—and were—accused of bandwagon jumping and/or opportunism. Perhaps the most prevalent explanation is that Monster simply was not much of an album.
Any of the previous possibilities are possible and debatable, except for the last one. 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 Life’s 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.
Aside from the impossible-to-ignore presence of Buck, Stipe does some of his finest, if most overlooked work here. In fact, he was possibly never in more control of his range, shifting comfortably from straightforward rock (“Star 69”) to abrasive (“King of Comedy”) to tender (“Strange Currencies”). It’s when he pushes the envelope that the results are most remarkable, and rewarding: he sounds like he’s singing from the bottom of a well in “Crush With Eyeliner”, and instead of hiding behind Buck’s out-of-focus adrenaline rush, he inserts himself into the mix with his finest space-age twang. He uncorks his best falsetto for the sickly sweet “Tongue”, a song that so filled with tenderness, self-loathing and remorse it’s like an accidental ballad. Finally, on album closer “You”, he is an entirely different singer than the lithe crooner from the ‘80s and early ‘90s: he sounds all grown up and is most definitely not faking it, the confusion and desperation almost uncomfortably palpable in each line.
This is not party music. It is not music you can put on while you study or read or fall asleep. It is noisy, occasionally ugly, abrupt and most of all, unapologetic. It is music that demands your attention, but it doesn’t ask for it: if you are not interested, it says, you can listen to something else. There is an audacity and casual indifference informing almost each song that clearly turned off the fickle fans. I’m not suggesting that to be a real R.E.M. fan you have to love Monster, but I am saying that if you casually dismissed it or never took the time to let it sink its claws in, you’re depriving yourself the pleasure of experiencing what may be the most unfairly-maligned rock album ever.