There aren’t a lot of bands that have a trajectory remotely like R.E.M.’s. After years of crafting perhaps the purest embodiment of ’80s college rock and developing a fervent cult following, they found breakthrough commercial success as that decade waned, with singles like “The One I Love,” “Stand,” and “Orange Crush,” and then serious mainstream success with 1991’s Out Of Time and 1992’s Automatic For The People. They laid the groundwork for the alternative boom in American mainstream music, but unlike most of their contemporaries (aside from, to some degree, Sonic Youth) R.E.M. experienced a massive boost in fame and success during that era as well. These days, we (rightfully) think of R.E.M. as a foundational artist for the way we think of indie music, and it’s hard to overstate their importance there — but they were also a touchstone for what became more mainstream alternative, influencing artists who would take over the early ’90s, especially Nirvana and Pearl Jam. They occupied a strange space, the still-vital forefathers who were pretty new to fame themselves.
Twenty years ago today, R.E.M. released Monster, their ninth record and the one that perhaps best represents all the paradoxes and surprises of R.E.M.’s career as of the early ’90s. Coming off what would be the peak of their commercial success, a long break in touring, and two predominantly folkier, more restrained records, the band reconvened and came up with this. It was billed, and is remembered, as R.E.M.’s rock record. Or, depending on who you’re talking to, sometimes their “return to rock” record, which only half makes sense because the record was, at the time, a total sonic outlier in the band’s catalog. (It still more or less is, aside from the fact that when R.E.M.’s last two albums combined a bit of everything they’d done, they fell back on a standard alt-rock guitar sound they first toyed with on Monster, back when it was a newer sound.) Where even something like the lean, emphatic Life’s Rich Pageant traveled more in that singular, ethereal R.E.M. mix of post-punk and folk and rock, Monster sounded entirely like a creation of its era. R.E.M. had helped inspire a generation, and then they themselves took some inspiration from that generation.
While it might draw on ’70s glam and some of R.E.M.’s own tendencies, Monster is an early ’90s alt-rock record through and through. Peter Buck’s distinctive jangle guitar is almost entirely absent — showing up only in grainier forms on “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” and (sort of) “Strange Currencies.” Instead, much of the record is coated in that reliably distorted early ’90s guitar tone. The whole record comes off as this kind of tamed murk — there’s a version of Monster, maybe, that could’ve been as distraught and overdriven as the heartbreaking, moving “Let Me In” (a sleeper candidate for one of the band’s finest songs). I’ve hardly returned to Monster since a phase in high school where I listened to it more than any other R.E.M. record, and I have a feeling this might be why. The version of rock R.E.M. was appropriating here now sounds dry, bordering on clinical in its approximation of a certain notion of alternative music. To be fair, there’s also still a lot that sticks with me. “I Took Your Name,” “Bang And Blame,” and especially “Circus Envy” and whatever the hell is going on in “King Of Comedy” — these are welcome inclusions in the R.E.M. canon that still wind up stuck in my head from time to time. Even so, there’s a part of me that always wants — fully knowing this isn’t really R.E.M.’s vibe, necessarily — Monster to feel, well, a bit more monstrous: shaggier, more fraught. Real waves of beleaguered distortion like on “Let Me In,” and less streamlined crunch.
I don’t think it’s just me. Generally speaking, Monster might be one of the harder R.E.M. records to parse when it comes to situating it in their overall legacy and arc. Though it was released to good reviews and significant mainstream success (“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” “Crush With Eyeliner,” “Bang And Blame,” and “Strange Currencies” were all successful singles to some degree on either the normal Hot 100 or the Alt-Rock charts), in hindsight it can be seen as the beginning of the end of R.E.M.’s dominance. After that was the blearier sister album New Adventures In Hi-Fi, and a host of albums made without drummer Bill Berry, albums some fans think shouldn’t have ever happened. (This era also has some of R.E.M.’s most underrated albums/songs, but that’s an argument for another day.)
I’ve known R.E.M. fans who had been following the band since the early days, hooked by Chronic Town and Murmur, who seemed to regard Monster with extensive distaste — whether because of the album’s grunge affectations being such a departure from the band’s core sound, or because this was so representative of the period of their career where they’d become bona fide rockstars, or some combination of the two. In opposition to that, there’s a whole bunch of younger R.E.M. fans who got onboard precisely because of the pop moment that came with Out Of Time and Automatic and Monster. There’s a whole group of people out there, I’d imagine, who heard something they needed when a song as strange as “Losing My Religion” became a top 10 hit, who then heard it in their own generation with the grunge explosion, and then really loved Monster because it had some elements of both. The weird thing about this album, in the grand scheme of R.E.M., is that it seems there’s a decent faction of the fanbase who write it off as one of the band’s worst, and there are plenty of other listeners out there who remember it more than much of the band’s output, for whom it’s at least one of the more important R.E.M. releases, and maybe even amongst their best.
There’s validity from either side, in my opinion — there’s a lot of Monster I quite like, but there’s a lot on every R.E.M. album that I quite like. The difference is I never find myself returning to Monster the way I might return to the other outliers, like Up or Reveal, and discover these lost gems or these facets of the band I never knew existed. Aside from the handful of songs here that still sound great when turned up really loud in a car, the thing that makes Monster interesting to me — aside from the business about its weird placement/role in their catalog — is its thematic uniqueness relative to the band’s other output. Michael Stipe was singing about fame and celebrity here, of course a rockstar cliché that can become rather grating. But this is R.E.M., and Monster is perhaps their sleaziest sounding record, in its way, and their meditations on celebrity and pop consumption play out as dark, twisted stories. At times, it strikes me as parallel to Achtung Baby. This was the moment where R.E.M. got self-reflexive, a little ironic, changed it up stylistically, and used a dirtier, more contemporary sound to make sense of their experiences, a different language than the one that had brought them that fame in the first place.
Revisiting Monster this week helped me crystallize something that, on some level, must have been rattling around in my head for most of my life, but something I’d never really fleshed out. When it comes down to it, I think the reason R.E.M. is one of my favorite bands is that there’s this inherent mystery to their sound. Each time I let Monster play through on my iTunes and Murmur started up, it hit me — that early, indelible R.E.M. sound. It’s a sound I know the cultural touchstones for well enough, and it’s a sound that’s relatively simple in structure. But that was the thing about those ’80s R.E.M. records, and a bunch of their other stuff as well: It could really sound like straight pop or rock on the surface, but whether in Stipe’s voice or the way these guys meshed, there always felt like there was this otherworldly quality to the sound. It came off as straightforward, but also unattainable and somewhat mystical.
That’s what’s lacking in Monster. Twenty years on, it almost plays out like a genre exercise — which may have been totally intentional. But even so, there are riffs and grooves on here of the sort that I’ve heard a band come up with randomly in a basement; there are riffs and grooves on here of the sort that I’ve come up with randomly in a basement. And, hey, sometimes that’s fun and the point of it, and, hey, R.E.M. still do it better than most anyone else. But in a career as rich as R.E.M.’s, I don’t find myself going back to Monster and finding anything new to explore, especially when compared to New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the much more sprawling, much denser album born from recordings done while the band toured Monster. In hindsight, Monster feels like a solid test run for the more expansive, ambitious, bedraggled follow-up — the one that does have mystery. Aside from my own biases, and the album’s reputation as a bargain bin staple, it seems Monster’s stock has risen in the wake of R.E.M.’s final decade and change as a band. It might be divisive on some level, but it’s not as divisive as Up or Reveal or (maybe) the solid-but-predictable coda of Accelerate and Collapse Into Now. It seems to have been rewritten into R.E.M.’s classic era, after all. There are a few moments here deserving of that, but, mostly, I would never tell a new fan to start here. I’m happy to have Monster out there, but I’m a lot happier to have most of R.E.M.’s other albums out there.