“A new sound well-removed from the sickly-sweet tones of the smash hit ‘Shiny Happy People.’”
Those are the words that Australian TV host Brian Armstrong used to describe R.E.M.’s 1994 album Monster a few months after its release. Armstrong may have been laying it on a little thick—“Shiny Happy People,” after all, was written to be sappy on purpose—but it’s not like he wasn’t telling the truth, or even saying anything the band didn’t agree with. At the time, millions upon millions of listeners associated R.E.M. with a tameness that didn’t accurately reflect everything the band had to offer.
Monster, the band’s ninth studio full-length, marked a decisive turn away from the mellow, downtempo vibe of its previous two albums, 1991’s Out of Time and 1992’s Automatic for the People, both of which became huge commercial successes, effectively ending R.E.M.’s position as standard bearers of the alternative underground movement they had emerged from.
A scrappy, up-and-coming cult act for the first eight years of their career, R.E.M. followed in the footsteps of The B-52’s, putting their hometown of Athens, Georgia on the map while retaining a sense that they had come from a quaint, quirky place steeped in down-home modesty. But now, R.E.M. were global pop superstars no longer in the same stratosphere as their contemporaries like The Replacements and Sonic Youth. By all accounts, frontman Michael Stipe, bassist Mike Mills, guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Bill Berry were still adjusting to the barometric changes fame had imposed on their lives by the time they began work on the follow-up to Automatic for the People in October of 1993. The material that ultimately became Monster was in many ways the band’s acknowledgment that there was no turning back.
If you listen to Automatic for the People and Out of Time beforehand, it’s easy to interpret Monster as R.E.M.’s re-assertion of their rock instincts. Stipe himself looks back on Monster as the “loudest and most abrasive” album of the band’s storied career, according to new reflections he offers in the liner notes assembled for this expanded, silver-anniversary edition written by music journalist Matthew Perpetua. Certainly, guitarist Peter Buck cranked up the distortion, and the skeletons of the songs were recorded live in the studio in order to capture a raw, organic feel. As Mike Mills revealed to Radio X just before the release of this package, producer Scott Litt even had the band rehearse the songs in pre-production with a PA to simulate the feeling of playing to a large crowd.
(One caveat: the 15 rather thin-sounding bonus demos that come with this set do not reflect that vibe. Additionally, Scott Litt’s new mix of the album 25 years later is tantamount to sacrilege and a textbook case of why artists shouldn’t tamper with work after the fact. Litt has expressed, in both the liners and a video interview released on the band’s official YouTube, that of the six albums he made with the band, he was most unhappy with his mix for Monster. His decision to present it anew in a more generic, traditional light with much of the auxiliary instrumentation removed and Stipe’s vocals louder in the mix, is completely unnecessary.)
“We needed a shot in the arm,” Stipe said in a new interview from NME. “We knew people wanted to hear [hits like] ‘Losing My Religion,’ ‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘Man on the Moon,’ the songs that they loved off those two prior albums that we’d never played live. We needed something to counter that with.”
All that said, Monster amounts to more than a “return to roots” kind of effort—if it can even be viewed that way at all. In a career that spans 18 full-length titles over a 28-year stretch, Monster, in some respects, stands apart from the rest of the R.E.M. catalog like a sore thumb: a blinking, neon-hued sore thumb that casts its own distinct glow. Nevertheless, the album also manages to reflect the band’s essence in spite of itself. R.E.M. had actually grown so proficient at writing anthemic singalong choruses by that point that iconic singles such as “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Crush with Eyeliner” partially mask the tangled contradictions and undercurrent of strangeness that thread through all but one of the Monster’s songs. Overall, the album meshes garage-rock abadonon with arena-sized posturing, simplicity with experimentation, earnestness with irony and a pointedly dark edge that somehow manages to come off as frivolous.
Earlier in the same decade, U2 had decided to go into full bug-out mode, making a spectacle of themselves via a calculated, self-consciously performative indulgence that was supposed to turn our notions of rock stardom and media saturation on their head. When you hear Monster, it’s clear that R.E.M. were paying attention—Stipe says as much in the new liners. The shaker intro and rhythmic cadence of “Tongue” even bears an uncanny resemblance to the Irish foursome’s 1991 smash single “One.” In a sense, we can look at Monster as a first cousin to U2’s career-redefining Achtung Baby and its zanier younger sibling Zooropa with one key distinction: R.E.M. conceived of Monster as a way to connect with live audiences, not to insert more distance.
As a result, the band didn’t radically warp its core sound the way U2 did, despite all the bells and whistles in Monster’s arrangements. Likewise, as much as the lyrics on Monster meditate openly on fame from what Stipe described to NME as a “meta” perspective, R.E.M. didn’t get swept away in the hot air of costumery and pomp. Like U2, R.E.M. apparently thought they were being clever by choosing to make fun of rock excess and celebrate it at the same time. But if R.E.M. meant to give Monster an air of camp when they turned to ’70s glam groups like the New York Dolls, Slade, and the Bay City Rollers for inspiration, apparently they didn’t realize how grounded their music could be even when they were aiming for an eccentric, disheveled and somewhat manic take on their sound.
“This is the first record where we dared to be really dumb,” Peter Buck revealed in a 1994 New Zealand TV interview. “Some of the songs are really simple. I think that’s a pretty exciting idea: that you can write a song with just one chord and that chord says all it needs to say. We just kinda loosened up.”
Maybe so, but the band also managed to rise above its own self-deprecation with a record that contains enormous amounts of sophistication and craft to match its freshness, daring and supposed “dumb”-ness. On the single “Strange Currencies,” for example, Buck picks at his guitar strings near the tuning pegs for high-pitched, slightly out-of-tune accompaniment to his main arpeggiated guitar line, an extra feature that adds a sparkling beauty to the verses while also making just enough of a mess. Likewise, guitar and piano work together in a fluid, dance-like unison on “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” to create one of the most haunting atmospheres R.E.M. ever committed to tape.
R.E.M. were never known for lashing out against the deafening roar of attention that came with their newfound stature. And though Monster was released shortly after Stipe came out publicly about his sexuality, it tells us something about how grounded the band’s mindset must have been to buy into the notion that Stipe’s words were about people he made up. Not to mention that, although songs like “King of Comedy” and “Circus Envy” give us a clue about how claustrophobic it must have felt to be in the band’s shoes at the time, there’s also plenty of fun to be had here.
Indeed, even as it traipses into some uncomfortable places, Monster is a most welcoming experience where expressions of obsession and desire hang like glittery garlands in colorfully-lit rooms. “There are,” Mills continued in the NME interview, “some conflicted characters in those songs. On the other hand, we were ready to have a good time and hit the stage and try to lift people up and have them leave the place feeling positive. Part of that noise and the fun of the record overlays [the] darker characters underneath.”
Perhaps the most striking example of this would be “Star 69,” a vaguely outlined cloak-and-dagger tale involving a warehouse fire, the suggestion of arson, the FBI and a narrator who refuses to provide an alibi for a friend. Written in a time before caller ID, the song’s title references the intrigue and counter-surveillance that even landlines had acquired at the end of the pre-cellphone age, and the band plays on this to giddy effect. Meanwhile, “hoo-hoo-hoo” background vocals and Buck’s racing guitar riff convey such utter buoyance and zest for life that the song could easily have soundtracked a John Hughes party sequence had Monster been released in the ’80s.
About half the songs on Monster are driven by Buck’s newly adopted infatuation with guitar tremolo, which—as Stipe told Radio X—“turned things upside down for us.” On tracks like “Crush With Eyeliner” and “I Took Your Name,” the shimmying ripples emanating from Buck’s amp provide the central foundation the rest of the band builds around. To this day, that single sonic element remains one of Monster’s most distinguishing and beguiling features. At the same time, though, the songs “Strange Currencies,” “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream,” “Let Me In” and “Tongue” don’t deviate all that much from what you’d hear on Automatic for the People, thus conjoining Monster quite seamlessly to the band’s broader body of work.
It is to R.E.M.’s ultimate credit that, even when they were trying, they couldn’t get in the way of the elements that have made their work so enduring. Monster was the band’s attempt to make a brash, even obnoxious album. What the world got instead was undeniably one of their most out-there efforts but arguably their most balanced too.
Hear R.E.M. perform at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit in October 1998 below via the Paste vault.