Not only an appreciation of Monster, but an opportunity to set the record straight and to examine the album for what it is.
Depending on who you ask, Monster is either a misunderstood album to which time has been kind, or it’s a punchline about big event 90s albums that eventually populated used CD bins at big box retailers across America. That latter perception (one that has led to more than a few bad jokes on Twitter in recent days) is perhaps a signal of how Monster became defined by what it wasn’t rather than what it was. By this point, R.E.M. had built up a huge audience on the back of two somber, primarily acoustic albums that improbably dominated MTV just as grunge was breaking into the mainstream, and they followed that up by plugging in and getting loud. This massive, loving reissue, then, not only serves as an appreciation of Monster, but as an opportunity to set the record straight and to examine the album for what it is. And this reissue of Monster does do that, but not in the way one would expect.
As I’ve written before on this site, Monster is, despite the naysaying, quite a good album and pretty underrated as far as R.E.M. albums go. It’s not really a “rock” album in the way that R.E.M. rocked in the past. Instead of anthems, the songs are sludgy, murky and noisy, a far cry from anything the band did before and not quite in line with grunge, either. The album hews closer to glam than grunge, and this connection is further solidified with Michael Stipe’s allusions to fame, celebrity culture and androgynous sexuality. Underneath all that, though, the album was Stipe’s most direct expression of his queerness at the time, and there were heart-rending moments beneath the din of guitars. In some ways, R.E.M. were continuing down a path towards open, direct expression with songs like “Strange Currencies” and “Let Me In,” even as they were playing with new sonic ideas at the same time. Even if it hadn’t been reissued, Monster is still an album well worth re-appraisal after decades of casual dismissal.
Having said that, Monster isn’t perfect. As evidenced in the unreleased demos from the album, the band were in a freewheeling, experimental mood when making the album, and the very nature of experimentation means that failure is every bit as likely as success. Thus, for every punchy rocker like “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” or “Star 69,” there’s a misfire like “King of Comedy” or “Crush With Eyeliner.” What’s more, the emphasis on guitars means that Peter Buck dominates the mix at the expense of the rest of the band. More than a few songs feature a barely-audible Stipe trying to make himself heard over the wailing distortion of Buck’s guitar. This ends up being one of the selling points of the reissue, as Scott Litt–who handled production and mixing duties on the album–offers a new, remixed version of Monster as part of the set. While Litt’s intentions are noble and his work does help some of the punchier, fast-paced songs, the remix is overall kind of unnecessary. Some of edits Litt makes are just kind of weird, like cutting out Stipe’s “don’t fuck with me” line at the end of “Kenneth,” and in his efforts to emphasize the vocals, he ends up removing most of the guest vocalists. It’d be overdramatic to call Litt’s remix the musical equivalent of the DVD release of Star Wars, but one can’t help but get the feeling that tampering with the recordings 25 years after the fact was a misguided decision.
What is perhaps most valuable about the set, though, is the inclusion of live material. Monster led to the biggest arena tour the band had ever undertaken up to that point, and the live recordings here (all from the documentary Road Movie) show just how little rust the band had after not touring at the peak of their fame in the early ‘90s. Most of the set is Monster material, and it’s clear that they were still figuring out how to translate songs from Out of Time and Automatic for the People into a live setting, but the band sound great, and Stipe’s stage presence is a far cry from the days when he would comb his hair over his eyes to avoid looking at the audience. It’s also fun to hear old classics like “So. Central Rain” played to a packed stadium, and the inclusion of songs that would eventually end up on New Adventures in Hi-Fi is a real treat. For die-hards, a live document of this quality from the Monster tour is essential listening.
However, the ornate packaging and plethora of extra material doesn’t quite elevate Monster beyond its status as an interesting failed experiment. This sort of grimy guitar rock never quite fit the band, and while they carry themselves well on these songs, it’s telling that they never revisited these ideas while they were still together. It’d be a stretch to call this box set essential for anyone but the most die-hard of R.E.M. fans, especially with the unnecessary remix of the album included, but this does present Monster as a chapter in R.E.M.’s history worth revisiting. Perhaps it’s time that Monster occupy a status higher than that of a Circuit City bargain bin.