The Past Presents revisits revered albums from the past 20-25 years to ask the question, “Is this album still a classic, or has it lost its edge over the years?”. Was it a great record for that particular time and place, or is it something we’ll be passing on to our kids? It also looks at the “lost classics” – countless albums that should have earned more attention but for one reason or another fell through the cracks.
It is a sad but true fact that greatness often outshines mere excellence. Did you ever know a family of extreme overachievers? Take the example of a highly successful couple who raised three sons. The first-born son attends Oxford, earns two PhDs, and goes on to be a highly regarded scholar and writer. The second son gradates from Harvard and becomes a ground-breaking research physician. The youngest son graduates from Duke University and starts a successful sports management consulting firm. Taken individually all three would be considered successful; however, when placed side by side, the youngest son pales a bit to his older brothers. Such is the case with R.E.M.’s 1994 album Monster.
Monster’s big brothers Out of Time and Automatic for the People are undisputed gems of the R.E.M. catalog, showcasing the band at the peak of their abilities. These two albums show R.E.M.’s complete mastery of the pop song while also crafting their most polished lyrics. Monster took a different turn. While R.E.M. lit up the airwaves with “Losing My Religion,” “Shiny Happy People,” and “Everybody Hurts”, the rest of the early ‘90s alternative rock scene was deeply ensconced in fuzzed-out grunge and driving guitar rock. Looking back at Monster, it seems that this album was a reaction to the trends of the early ‘90s.
So, was Monster R.E.M.’s desperate attempt to stay relevant in the face of changing tastes? I don’t think so. In 1994 R.E.M. could have released Out of Time 2 and it would have sold millions of copies and had every critic under the sun searching for new adjectives to describe the band’s genius. Instead, I think Monster was R.E.M.’s attempt to reinvent themselves. Monster was to be a reworking of the band’s sound while they were at the top of their game. I believe that Monster was supposed do for R.E.M. what Achtung Baby did for U2. This album was supposed to kick open the door to a new realm of creativity for a band firmly into their second decade. Unfortunately R.E.M. failed to make a landmark album here because they didn’t blow the whole thing up and start fresh. They simply swapped their clean guitar and well-placed mandolin sound for overdriven guitars and effects. Monster fails to be the seismic shift that Achtung Baby was; and as a result Monster was viewed by critics as a good album, but not a great one. Fans bought millions of copies of the album, but after a few years it was regarded as the dog of the R.E.M. catalog. By the start of the new millennium, Monster was a staple of bargain bins everywhere.
I recently dug Monster out of my local bargain bin, wondering, 17 years since its release, if Monster remains bargain bin fodder, or has it blossomed into a bargain bin treasure?
Admittedly, there are some problems with this record. I’m immediately struck by the repetition of the guitar sound introduced in lead track and first single, “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” There are several tracks that use the same guitar effects and it seems a bit overdone. Also, it’s clear that the lyrics on these songs are not the best R.E.M. ever set to tape. “Bang and Blame” is a testament to the lyrical miscues spread across this collection. If you can get past these two points, Monster is actually full of solid songs; not great songs, but solid ones. In a lot of ways this album reminds me of a noisier cousin of Green. If you listen a few times you will start to notice that the melodic thread that shines on ‘80s albums like Document and Fables of the Reconstruction runs through these songs as well. Personally, I think “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?,” “Strange Currencies,” and “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” are among the band’s most memorable. Of course, there are inexcusable moments here as well. Michael Stipe’s attempt to be Bono with his falsetto rendition of “Tongue,” and the track “Circus Envy” rank among R.E.M.’s worst.
Donning a pair of headphones reveals Monster’s best quality; this is the most sonically adventurous album R.E.M. ever made. Listen beyond some of the overused guitar effects and listen to the little sounds in the background. There’s a lot of texture built into the fabric of these songs, giving the careful listener a real aural treat and something to focus on when the lyrics go south.
I doubt I will ever cross paths with someone who feels Monster is R.E.M.’s best work; however, it seems criminal that this album sunk so low in popular opinion that it’s been condemned to a forgotten corner of most record stores. With the passing of significant time, Monster should be appreciated anew. While it may never outshine its older brothers, Monster is a success in its own right.