‘Monster’ was the album that followed two massive successes for R.E.M. in ‘Out Of Time’ (containing ‘Radio Song’, ‘Losing My Religion’ and ‘Shiny Happy People’) and ‘Automatic For The People’ (‘Man On The Moon’, ‘Nightswimming’ and ‘Everybody Hurts’). It was a purple patch for the band, who clocked up sales of the best part of 30 million copies for the two and pushed them to the forefront of public consciousness alongside bands like U2 and Nirvana.
In making ‘Monster’, the band chucked a proverbial grenade at what had gone before and changed from a soft alternative rock style to a harder sound. Distorted guitar reverb was the characteristic musical theme to the songs, with Michael Stipe’s distinctive vocals being less prominent. The cover artwork, which came from an orange balloon with a bear design, has a matching fuzzy quality to it. Having not toured the previous two albums, they had a renewed relish to do so this time around, so much of it was recorded live with relatively little technical trickery.
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The opening single was the brilliant ‘What’s The Frequency Kenneth?’ The title refers to an incident in New York in 1986 when journalist Dan Rather was attacked by two muggers whom uttered that phrase. Michael Stipe is quoted as saying, “I wrote that protagonist as a guy who’s desperately trying to understand what motivates the younger generation, who has gone to great lengths to try and figure them out, and at the end of the song it’s completely fucking bogus. He got nowhere.” Anyone with teenage children will understand that feeling. The lyrics “Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy” and “You said that irony was the shackles of youth” sum up the difficulties in interpreting what the heck these young folk actually think and getting on the right wavelength with them.
In fact much of the lyrical content is written in character as Stipe comments on celebrity and the slightly unsettling nature of excessive fandom. There’s a sense that some of the less savoury elements of human nature are being explored here and that nothing is terribly sweet in the R.E.M. psyche at this time.
‘Crush With Eyeliner’ ponders who the “sad tomato” (pronounced as the American tom-ay-to as opposed to the English tom-ar-to) really is and who the voyeur could be to please her. It was one of the first songs written by Stipe after the death of his friend River Phoenix, which sent him into a depression for five months. And there is more grief in ‘Let Me In’, where Stipe is having an imaginary conversation with Kurt Cobain to talk him out of the events that led to his ultimate death. This is the track with the most overwhelmingly thick guitar dirge almost drowning the desperate vocals of Stipe, reflecting the utter helplessness of the situation. “I had it in mind to try and stop you, Let me in. Let me in, I’ve got tar on my feet and I can’t see, All the birds look down and laugh at me.” Absolutely heart-breaking. Possibly the darkest song is ‘Bang and Blame’, a comment on a destructive and abusive relationship and ‘Circus Envy’ likens the game of love to performing tricks on command in the Big Top. It also contains a clue as to what the ‘Monster’ in the title may be – monster jealousy, such a destructive emotion. Quite what these guys had to be jealous about during this high spot in their career is unclear, unless it’s that most under-rated of things – normality. Another belting tune is ‘I Took Your Name’ – there’s full reverb here with a slightly bolshie Elvis twang on the vocal with the “I did this, I did that” lyrics. You may think it’s about the institution of marriage, but it’s more likely to be about identity fraud, a new concept at the time.
Sonically, ‘I Don’t Sleep, I Dream’ has a clearer sound and is more reminiscent of their previous songs. This character seems somewhat shallow and matter of fact about love, “You won’t have to dig too deep,” and has the superb lyric, “I’ll settle for a cup of coffee but you know what I really need.” There is more explicit detail of this later in the song if you really do need further clarification.
Albums need light and shade, and ‘Strange Currencies’ and ‘You’ on first listen sound more like straightforward declarations of love. In ‘Strange Currencies’, “These words, you will be mine,” until you realise it’s in the context of someone who is mean to them and who they are begging to give them “a chance, a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance, a word, a signal, a nod, a little breath.” It’s all a bit desperate. And in ‘You’, “I love you crazy, just keep on. I love you madly, just keep watch, You wipe my lips, You turn me on, My attentions are on you.” It’s very sensual but suffocating and there’s an insistent pulse that nudges the sensations. You’d love to believe it was a pure exaltation, but in the context of this album, it seems unhealthy and creepy.
So ‘Monster’ is an album that is not an easy listen at times. Its dark themes and thick sound could barely be further from the frothy ‘Shiny Happy People’, but in the context of the loss of close friends and a backlash to the shock of superstardom, it’s an album that you sense got a lot out of their system. It may not be as well-known as the two stellar precursors but it did the band no harm, as they subsequently signed an 80 million dollar contract with Warner Brothers, the biggest ever at the time.