Understanding the Frequency: A Celebration of R.E.M.’s Monster

It’s hard to argue that a band that sold over 85 million albums worldwide, were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame on their first year of eligibility, and rivaled U2 as the biggest stadium draw of the 90s could possibly be underrated…but I’m going to do it anyway. After their 2011 breakup, R.E.M.’s legacy has been largely minimized, despite a remarkably consistent 30-year career boasting some of the most iconic songs in rock history. Their impact and influence is still apparent when listening to modern acts like Cloud Nothings and Vampire Weekend, but save for the melancholy “Sweetness Follows” showing up in an episode of 13 Reasons Why, there’s a sadly all-too-real concern that new audiences are not discovering R.E.M. and the band will become a footnote outside of mandolin enthusiast circles and overly optimistic karaoke singers attempting to master the speedy “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

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You’ll only get the “LEONARD BERNSTEIN!” part right and you know it.

 

While they seem determined to preserve their legacy and brush off any reunion chatter, R.E.M. have consistently offered up 25th anniversary packages for each of their albums (although their incredible debut EP Chronic Town and b-sides compilation Dead Letter Office have been unjustly ignored in this campaign), and what began as two-disc sets featuring the remastered original album plus a live show or demos has evolved into the mammoth Monster package: five CDs and a Blu-Ray, including the aforementioned remaster and both demos and a full concert from the era, as well as an unprecedented remix of the entire record, all packaged in a 76-page book with expansive liner notes and photos. Seems a bit excessive for an album that has plagued used CD stores since its 1994 release, no?

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Even blind people can see the rows of glowing orange in record shops.

 

Now here’s the part where I actually do make a real argument: Monster is not only one of the best albums in the R.E.M. catalog, it’s also–cue spit takes from any diehard fans reading this and bemused shrugs from everyone else–their best album of the 90s. And aside from perhaps 2004’s misguided Around the Sun, it’s definitely the one most in need of reconsideration.

Monster–or “The Scary One” if you’re a regular listener of Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman’s R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME? podcast–followed the two biggest records of the band’s career: Out of Time, which birthed a monster of its own in “Losing My Religion,” and Automatic for the People, often considered their masterpiece. The group allowed those two albums to stand on their own without touring, only performing sporadic one-off sets between 1990 and 1994. That they had the luxury–or, some might argue, the arrogance–to get away with this speaks volumes to the goodwill afforded to the band at this time. Regardless, by this point, they were ready to get back on the road and rock.

One slight problem: they’d sort of forgotten how to rock. Out of Time and Automatic are both introspective, gentle records that somehow appealed to the same audience that gloried in the more visceral sound of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. And while “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts” were guaranteed crowd-pleasers, the overall style of those two albums was probably too tender for stadium performance. It was time to put down the mandolins and crank up the tremolo. It was time for Monster.

R.E.M. had never been an especially gritty band, so there are admittedly moments on Monster that come across as trying too hard. The moody “King of Comedy” doesn’t just provide the ammunition for the album’s critics; it practically loads the gun for them with its repetitive riff and monotone mumbling. It also wouldn’t be unfair to accuse the band of latching onto the trends of the day, taking a page from the Kurt Cobain songbook with the soft/loud structure and heavy use of distortion. But it was new territory for R.E.M., and when Monster succeeds, it hits hard.

Take lead single “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” which is probably the best Dan Rather-inspired alternative rock song of the 1990s. Peter Buck’s pulsating guitar drives the song, with Michael Stipe’s typically vague lyrics setting the tone for an album filled with dissonant, borderline creepy reflections on fame. Bassist Mike Mills, always the band’s secret weapon, enhances the track with his top-notch harmonies–take a listen for that single note he sustains, buried in the mix at 2:45.

Mills also perfectly embodies the irony of Monster‘s celebrity-obsessed lyrics in the music video for “Kenneth,” which displays the band in a heretofore unseen level of coolness, for lack of better term. It’s not that R.E.M. had entirely eschewed their status as rock stars prior to this, but seeing the bassist don a flashy, oversized suit with outlines of flame on it marked a clear turning point. For better or worse, from now on, the members of R.E.M. were not only aware of their fame but they leaned into it. The earnest early days of Stipe awkwardly sitting out of interviews and Mills looking more like an extra from Revenge of the Nerds than a member of one of the biggest bands on the planet were gone forever.

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Luckily, drummer Bill Berry’s unibrow wasn’t going anywhere.

 

Mills wears the same outfit in the video for second single, “Bang and Blame,” a choppy, passive-aggressive missive directed towards an insincere partner. It’s a great track but musically feels very by the numbers, and in some ways reminiscent of “Losing My Religion.” That said, it’s nowhere near as close as “Strange Currencies” is to “Everybody Hurts.” The track nearly missed the cut because of that, which would have been unfortunate as I definitely prefer it to its maudlin predecessor.

There are really only two tracks on Monster that don’t appeal to me, the dragging “Tongue” with its grating falsetto, and album closer “You,” which lasts five minutes and goes exactly nowhere during that time. Glam rocker “Crush With Eyeliner” is the love child of Nirvana and David Bowie, and deserves appreciation for that alone. Once again, it’s Mills’ backing vocals that especially win me over. The aggressive “Circus Envy” worked better live, where it wasn’t subjected to overwhelming distortion, but I’m still a fan of the chaotic studio rendition. Likewise, the sparser acoustic take on Kurt Cobain tribute “Let Me In” that R.E.M. performed on tour in 2008 speaks to me more than the album version, but it’s a beautiful and fitting candlelit vigil in any form.

That brings us to my top three songs on Monster. Taking the bronze is “I Took Your Name,” perhaps the most sinister moment on an album full of brooding, threatening lyrics. Is the narrator a stalker, an identity thief, or an assassin? Maybe all three. In fairness, it probably falls victim to complaints I’ve leveraged at other songs here–it’s repetitive, lacks a signature melody, and arguably tries too hard–but I appreciate its rawness. “Star 69” is a more overt take on the stalker theme, and though the title reference is probably lost on listeners after a certain generation and some may find the dual vocal effect grating, it’s definitely one of the catchiest songs on the record.

“I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” earns a place in my personal R.E.M. top five, an absolutely stunning recording that becomes more and more evocative with each passing second. Berry’s simple, hypnotic drum beat and Buck’s haunting riff would make for a menacing instrumental, but this is really Stipe’s finest hour on Monster. He emits a gentle yet controlling coo that both befits and defies the sensual nature of the lyrics, and it makes the transitions between verse and chorus especially powerful. By the time a bleak second guitar part softly enters the mix at 2:18, “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” has already struck its place in the R.E.M. pantheon. By the way, has there ever been a more appropriate connection between band name and song title?

Monster went out of its way to avoid sounding like R.E.M., something that was seemingly important to the band at the time. It backfired in the moment, but 25 years later, those who are brave enough to listen to “The Scary One” can see that it’s an outstanding and innovative record that dramatically evolved R.E.M. yet again. But alas, even a six-disc box set leaves some questions unanswered. We’re still waiting on Kenneth to tell us the frequency.

Understanding the Frequency: A Celebration of R.E.M.’s Monster

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