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In Defense of … R.E.M.’s ‘Monster’

Back when people still paid actual money to buy actual albums, I was a budget-conscious teenager bent on getting the most music for my dollar. You could find me at one of many used-CD stores near my house, searching for deals in the dollar bin, only to be heartbroken when I came face-to-face with a stack of blurry bears. There they were: orange jewel cases of R.E.M.‘s ‘Monster’ – rubbing elbows with ‘Tubthumper’ and ‘I Am an Elastic Firecracker’ – discarded by fans who had hopped aboard the R.E.M. bandwagon circa ‘Losing My Religion’ only to bail a few years later.

But it’s not just casual fans who have tarnished ‘Monster”s reputation. The group’s big “rock” record, released almost 20 years ago, has consistently split fan opinion. If certain Gen X-ers could barely stomach a shiny, poppy sound on ‘Green’ in 1988, they were more than happy to draw the line at Peter Buck’s ‘Monster’ power chords in 1994. This I find a little strange, if only because R.E.M. had altered their sound every single time they released a new album.

Was it really a shock that ‘Monster’ bore no resemblance to the mostly acoustic ‘Automatic for the People’? Was everyone really that upset that there were no mandolins this time? As a longtime fan of loud rock and distorted guitars, I love what Buck, Bill Berry, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe did with this grimy sound. The band took ’70s glam and turned it inside out to create inner monologues like ‘Star 69′ and ‘Crush With Eyeliner’ — a track about lusty obsession and romantic facades that ranks with the best tunes R.E.M. ever recorded.

Sure, on its face, ‘Monster’ is drenched in a more commercial sound perfect for the alternative-rock radio waves of 1994, and some people were less than pleased that R.E.M. weren’t cutting against the grunge grain. But this record demands a little more effort than a first sonic impression. The songs are loaded with critiques of celebrity, culture and rock stars – from the story of a man who struggled to make sense of modern media on ‘What’s the Frequency Kenneth?’ to the lonely life of a tortured performer (Kurt Cobain) on ‘Let Me In.’ The latter, a dirge-like hymn bathed in waves of distortion, features lyrics that fire the imagination (“all those stars drip down like butter“) and crush the soul (“he gathered up his loved ones and he brought them all around to say goodbye, nice try“).

That’s not the only song to deal with the death of a famous friend. ‘Bang and Blame,’ R.E.M.’s last big hit in the U.S., is rumored to be Stipe’s lament for his rocky affair with River Phoenix and how the actor’s fame ruined any chance at a relationship between the two men. In fact, all of ‘Monster’ is dedicated to Phoenix, who died from drug-induced heart failure the year before the album was released.

Lyrics aside, let’s take a moment to praise Stipe’s singing on the album. This was a man who, a decade prior, was murmuring into the mic and hiding behind a mess of jangly hair. In a move that was as symbolic as it was cosmetic, ‘Monster’ revealed a newly bald Stipe who was increasingly forceful and acrobatic in his vocal delivery. To listen to his vulnerable falsetto on ‘Tongue’ or his passionate growl on ‘Eyeliner’ is to hear an already beguiling singer discover new corners of his voice.

That’s something he would put to full use on the band’s 1995 world tour – the first one since 1989 and, hence, the culmination of the chart-topping years. Armed with the adrenaline-soaked ‘Monster’ songs, R.E.M. would generate some of the most exciting and powerful performances of the group’s career (even if it would land three-fourths of the band in the hospital … but that’s another story).

Two decades down the road, ‘Monster’ remains a thrilling, difficult, sexy and complex record. Yes, it may fall short of R.E.M. masterpieces ‘Automatic for the People,’ ‘Document’ and ‘Murmur,’ but a record this consistently interesting deserves way better than the bargain bin.

Next: In Defense of 'Superman Returns'

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