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In Defense of R.E.M.’s “Monster”

 

As I mentioned yesterday, Popmatters wrote a piece on “10 Albums That Supposedly Suck But Don’t”.  I was surprised to see that R.E.M.’s Monster made it to number two on that list. I had no idea that the album was considered to be that bad. That being said,  the loud and noisy Monster probably came as a shock to fans who discovered the band a few years earlier with their acoustic-based Out of Time and Automatic for the People. 

A bit of history and perspective, then. R.E.M. had spent most of the 1980s building up an impressive body of work – the run of albums from Murmur to Document is among the best in rock and roll. They came along at time when rock and roll seemed stagnant, and all but invented alternative rock on the college radio circuit. Peter Buck’s ringing guitar chords sounded were influenced by The Byrds, but Michael Stipe’s vocal delivery and lyrics were refreshing as they were confusing. They were more fragments than a cohesive thought. On the first few albums, his vocals were virtually impossible to understand. Every single album from the 80s sounded completely different. Their debut, Murmur was murky and understated. 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction was an exploration of the myths of the old South. Document turned up the volume a bit but still retained their core qualities. 1998’s Green was their version of Led Zeppelin III – rockers counter-balanced by acoustic ballads.

With Out of Time and Automatic for the People, R.E.M. achieved global super-star status, but no one could accuse them on selling out. In the hey-day of grunge, the band went the exact opposite route – soft and introspective. The band was proving that you could achieve a high level of success, while still maintaing critical acclaim. So it seems inevitable, that Monster would receive a back-lash. Though I have to ask because I was 13 at the time of its release, what is so poorly received then?

Certainly, Monster is the strangest of all the R.E.M. albums cut with original drummer Bill Berry. Its full of distortion, feedback, cackles and hisses, echoed vocals, and Prince-style falsettos. It’s also the first album where Michael Stipe  focuses on sex, a subject he seemed to avoid for a long time. Monster is the band’s attempt to try something different after delivering two subdued albums in a row.

The main problem with this is that even though R.E.M. could occasionally rock, they’re not rockers. They’re a bit of our of their element and songs such as the noise-laden “Circus Envy” and the electronic-vocal enhanced “King of Comedy” have not aged well. Michael Stipe’s falsetto on “Tongue” while laughable upon release, sounds embarrassing now.  When Stipe name-checks Iggy Pop on “I Took Your Name” it sounds hollow.

Yet, the album has plenty of merits. (Unfortunately, the awful cover isn’t one of them.) “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, perhaps the album’s best known song – shows they could match rock with melody. Peter Buck offers one of his best riffs, pushing the song along with a menace and crunch. Mike Mills and Michael Stipe give a fantastic vocal interplay, which has always been one of R.E.M’s secret weapons. Elsewhere, “Bang an Blame” has a unique echo guitar riff which blasts out of the speaker only to fade into the background before coming back again. The highlight of the album is the guitar-only fury of “Let Me In”, an ode to Stipe’s friend Kurt Cobain. It’s one of the best R.E.M. ballads only with the amps turned up to 12.

Some of the criticism of Monster might be just. I’m not so sure the sell-out label applies, especially if you listen to the album as a whole. While not as brutal as Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy (which came out the same year) Monster may seem like it was written as an attempt to get rid of the some of the casual fans. Although if this is the case, it’s odd considering that they launched a massive world tour to promote the album.

Still, Monster is not an unlistenable album and in the history of R.E.M. its not one of their worst detours into weirdness.

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