Monster is the eleventh album from the band R.E.M. It was released September 27, 1994, the follow-up to their hugely successful Automatic For The People and Out of Time albums. Rather than continue an introspective, mellow train of thought like their previous album Automatic For The People or a pop and social commentary vein like their huge 1991 album, Out of Time, R.E.M. did something that simultaneously alienated their fanbase and earned them the respect of many others. They released a hard rock album chock full of heavily distorted guitars, nearly to the point of drowning out everything else. This album was produced by Scott Litt and R.E.M. and as usual, all songs were written by the group. It totals forty nine minutes and sixteen seconds over twelve tracks.
The sheer audacity of this approach took much of their fanbase by surprise, and this album received a lot of negative feedback from their fans. On the other hand, to this day I am utterly impressed with the sheer audacity of it; taking your previous sound that had resulted in two monstrously popular albums and completely throwing it out the window takes some serious guts. Even more, I think it's an extremely enjoyable album; it's the sound of a band having fun, especially Peter Buck, whose guitar often sounds utterly inspired.
The album opens with the first single from the album, What's The Frequency Kenneth? (3:59), a song about Dan Rather and schizophrenia. There is an excellent writeup explaining the story behind this song. It opens the album with fuzzy guitars, telling the world openly that this is not going to be Automatic For The People, Part Two.
The single came out early in the month and I have to admit, it took me by surprise (along with much of the rest of the music-listening world). I tuned into my regular rock station one morning in early September 1994 just as this song was starting to play; I thought it was a new grunge band with a singer that was trying to sound like Michael Stipe. When the announcer came on and said that it was the first single from R.E.M.'s upcoming album, I was in disbelief... but the kind of disbelief that comes with a smile. It's a great song and a huge change of pace from what the group was doing before.
The second track is the third single, released in December 1994. Crush With Eyeliner (4:39) is full of loud guitars once again, giving this tale of an unusual girl seen on the sidewalk an edgy feel. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth contributes to this track, and the Sonic Youth feel is all over this song.
King of Comedy (3:39) continues the heavy guitar influence on a track about the power of celebrity. A gutsy subject from a band taking a gutsy musical approach to an album and pulling it off wonderfully. A friend of mine, a supposed R.E.M. fan, has stated to me that he has never been able to listen to this album beyond this track. The distorted vocals just fit it all perfectly; this is a great rock track.
I Don't Sleep, I Dream (3:25) isn't as chock full of heavy guitar as the first three, but it still retains a very edgy feel. The song is about someone seeking a relationship that is a change of pace, which contributes to the whole general feeling of change one gets from this album. The falsetto parts of the choruses are fantastic; this is what U2's Lemon could have been.
Star 69 (3:07) again returns to the heavy rock theme of the album, with some particularly nice riffs in places. It's about paranoia concerning people who call and hang up; the riffage in the middle makes this another excellent track.
The fourth single from the album, released in April 1995, is the sixth track. Strange Currencies (3:51) is easily the most mellow song to this point on the album; it's about the weird exchanges that occur in any relationship that exists for a while. The music almost sounds like a heavier version of Automatic's Everybody Hurts; it turns out quite nice.
The fifth single from the album was Tongue (4:08), released in September 1995; it's also the seventh track on the album. It's very unusual, using some sort of electric organ and a strongly falsetto style on vocals from Michael Stipe. I'm really unsure as to what the song is to be about; the lyrics are rather unusual. The music, however, is top notch and that's what makes this song a worthwhile single.
Perhaps the most well-known song from the album is the eighth track, Bang and Blame (4:48), which was the second single, released in November 1994. It's one of those songs that you can drown yourself in; in fact, turning this song up and just closing your eyes paints a better picture of what this album is about than any mere words I could express. It's about a relationship collapsing, but when the chorus comes ripping in, it's magic.
I Took Your Name (4:07) is somehow very reminiscent of Crush With Eyeliner earlier in the album in terms of instrumentation; the vocals are distorted and detached, though, making the song feel different. It's about the ties that bind in a relationship as it ends; a very good song with the edgy guitars that made Crush With Eyeliner such a good track.
The tenth track was intended to feature Kurt Cobain of Nirvana in a guest appearance, as he and Michael Stipe were good friends, but due to Kurt's unfortunate and untimely end in April 1994, things didn't go as planned. This song, Let Me In (3:27), remained on the album and is quite reminiscent of something that might have appeared on In Utero, a wonderfully distorted mess that somehow clicks into place. Michael Mills supposedly used Kurt Cobain's Fender Jaguar in the recording of the track. Stipe's vocals cut through the fog of distortion wonderfully.
Circus Envy (4:14) is another rocker, this time about a person who is quite cruel in a lot of ways to the singer. The lyrics are unusual and the fuzz is turned up very high here, a distortion-filled rocker near the end.
The album closes with You (4:52), an optimistic song about being in love and being focused on your partner. The guitars are much more sedate here, but still distorted, bringing the album to a close and setting the stage very well for their follow-up album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi. A very nice closer, mostly thanks to the distorted Peter Buck guitar and Michael Stipe's vocal experimentation.
What can I say? This album was a monstrous change in direction for a band and it alienated their fanbase, a part of which never really came back to the band even though they've released some truly excellent stuff since then. It is a great hard rock album; the problem is that many R.E.M. fans aren't fans of hard rock. If you liked this one, I would recommend Nirvana's In Utero, as well as this group's albums Document and Murmur.