In Defense of R.E.M’s Monster

R.E.M. is one of my favorite groups of all time, and I have at least a passing familiarity with each one of their studio releases. With the exception of the hardly-even-canonical post-Bill Berry releases, (which cover roughly the period between the drummer’s departure in 1997 and the group’s official end in 2011), each R.E.M. album has gathered its fair share of critical and audience acclaim. Even the group’s 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Berry’s last) has overcome a lukewarm initial reception to gain a new reputation in the intervening years as among the group’s best.

Basically, from the Chronic Town EP all the way until Hi-Fi, R.E.M. didn’t really seem to make any obvious missteps. Except for one. If you need a refresher on exactly what that misstep was, cruise on over to your local used record store (assuming such a thing still exists) and check out how many copies of 1994’s Monster they have. If it’s over seven, you owe me a Coke. Something about R.E.M’s loud, dirty ode to glam rock didn’t sit well with the group’s 90s fan base, especially those that were expecting another low-key affair like Out of Time or Automatic for the People. In other words, if you approached Monster looking for a follow-up to “Losing My Religion,” you were bound to be disappointed by the more abrasive and alienating sounds featured on the record. In fact, Peter Buck plays the mandolin zero times on Monster, opting instead for chunky guitar riffs on songs like “Star 69” and “Crush With Eyeliner.” Some of it works (I like the sweet piano-driven “Tongue”), and some of it doesn’t (“I Took Your Name”), but this is R.E.M. at their most restlessly experimental, and that’s at least worth something.

It’s no accident that Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore makes an appearance on “Eyeliner.” Monster heralded a new, more distorted version of R.E.M, one more influenced by hardcore and noise rock than by the Beatles. Of course, these influences had been with the group all along, but laid dormant for a few years. Though Monster didn’t necessarily represent any of the R.E.M. incarnations that we had previously seen upon the album’s release in 1994, it still showed an important side of the group. People weren’t into it at the time, but maybe Monster deserves another listen. If nothing else, it gave us the modern classic “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

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