After the tremendous success of Out of Time and Automatic for the People, the members of R.E.M. were determined to, in the words of Peter Buck, put away the dulcimers and make a rock and roll record. The result was Monster, an album that fueled the band’s 1995 arena tour and a metamorphosis in their image but that doesn’t quite meet their high standards.
The opening track and first single, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?,” gets things off to a rather good start, with layers of harder, slightly distorted guitar setting the album’s tone while Michael Stipe sings about the inability to understand a younger generation and the foolishness of trying. (The song also marks the beginnings of the health problems that plagued this album and tour, as Mike Mills began to feel the symptoms of appendicitis toward the end of recording it and soon wound up in surgery.) While the sound isn’t quite like anything the band had done before, the underlying structure isn’t too far removed from previous up-tempo songs, and there’s enough of a melody to support the sonic touches.
The same can’t be said of every song on the album; the second track, “Crush with Eyeliner,” doesn’t seem to go anywhere and ultimately drowns under the feedback wail. The album’s closer, “You,” suffers the same malady. On the other hand, the most powerful song on the album is one of the slowest and least melodic; “Let Me In,” which Stipe wrote after learning of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, contrasts a quiet, mournful lyrical performance with a howling lead guitar played by Mills to very powerful effect. (The live performance of this song was a highlight of the tour as well.)
There are a couple of fast-moving, high-energy songs on the album as well, which are among my favorites. “Star 69” and “King of Comedy” are successful experiments that prove the band can indeed still rock out. “Strange Currencies” takes the basic melody from Automatic‘s “Everybody Hurts” and reworks it to fit the album’s style; like many of the songs on Monster, Stipe’s new lyrics suggest the darker, possessive aspect of relationships. That dark edge, and the more pronounced sexuality of songs like “Tongue” and “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream,” are Monster‘s primary themes.
In the end, Monster isn’t the attempt to cash in on grunge’s popularity that some critics accused the band of making; it’s a not-always-successful experiment that epitomizes R.E.M.’s determination not to get stuck in a rut. Of course, even failed experiments can yield results, and I’d argue that’s the case with Monster, which helped set the stage for one of the group’s finest works.
- What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? (4:00)
- Crush with Eyeliner (4:38)
- King of Comedy (3:41)
- I Don’t Sleep, I Dream (3:28)
- Star 69 (3:08)
- Strange Currencies (3:53)
- Tongue (4:13)
- Bang and Blame (5:30)
- I Took Your Name (4:03)
- Let Me In (3:28)
- Circus Envy (4:15)
- You (4:54)
Released by: Warner Bros.
Release date: 1994
Total running time: 49:16