Warner Bros. Records, 1994
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/01/1998
In 1994, some people started to wonder if R.E.M. had lost its fire.
Oh, sure, they had put out two decent albums in the guise of Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, but Michael Stipe and company had moved back almost to an AOR format, with their soft, introspective ballads and string sections. R.E.M. needed something to kick them in the ass and kick their sound back into overdrive.
Monster is the result of two such kicks - the suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain (whom Stipe was supposed to collaborate with on a project) and the drug overdose death of River Phoenix. What came out of Stipe was some of R.E.M.'s best rock work in a while, as well as some material which is quite forgettable.
The leadoff track "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" shows that the lads from Athens, Georgia are back, and they have some musical bones to pick. Peter Buck's heavily distorted guitars are a welcome change from the light acoustic clang of their previous album (not that the acoustic vein was bad - but there's such a thing as too much of a good thing), while Mike Mills's bass thunders through the sonic clouds of sound. Bill Berry's drums haven't sounded this good in a long time; they have a definite snap to them, especially the snare work.
And while Peter Holsapple is nowhere to be found on this disc, the band does turn to Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore for assistance on "Crush With Eyeliner," a great song with a guitar effect that must be heard to be believed. It almost sounds like Buck had his guitar running into a rotating speaker - it's quite cool.
Some of the other radio hits off Monster are just as good - "Bang And Blame" is a number that grows on you quickly, while "Star 69" is a bundle of energy that just waits to explode out of your speakers. However, I'll never understand why tracks like "King Of Comedy" and "I Took Your Name" didn't make it to the airwaves; they were just as good. Even "Circus Envy," a track which could have been called a throwaway, is cute and funny enough to win you over.
If all the songs on Monster were of this caliber, then this would unquestionably rank as R.E.M.'s best work. However, there are a couple of boat anchors on this disc. "Strange Currencies" is an attempt to run back to the ballad days while keeping the electric feel to the instruments. Three words: ain't happenin', gang. The song is overblown and pompous - but that didn't stop it from becoming a hit on the radio.
A few other songs are too slow and, Lord help us, too moody to fit in with the general alternative feel of Monster. "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" is an experiment that just never gets off the ground, while "Let Me In" and "You" collapse under their own weight.
Oh, it's not that R.E.M. stumbled when they made Monster - if anything, their return to a four-piece with the volume turned to "10" was a return to form that long-time fans were hoping for. And to R.E.M.'s credit, the few duds are evenly spaced out though the disc's 12 tracks; had they been all together, I think I would have been running for the exits.
It remains to be seen whether R.E.M. will reach this apex again, especially with the departure of Berry. Even if they never achieve this kind of greatness, Monster is a powerful, but flawed, portrait of a band who had tasted the blood of creativity again.