Of the influential 90s alternative rock records turning 20 this year – Dookie, Weezer, Definitely Maybe, Parklife, Unplugged in New York to name a few – none have stuck with me as strongly as R.E.M.’s Monster.
When Monster was released in September 1994, R.E.M. were in a unique position. After spending the better part of a decade on indie label IRS, the band jumped to Warner Brothers Records and found increasing – and unprecedented – success with 1991’s Out of Time and 1992’s Automatic for the People. In the years between Automatic and Monster, the music landscape changed dramatically with the so-called Alternative Nation breaking into the mainstream in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind and a handful of other records.
When the band began work on Monster, they made a conscious decision to produce a ‘rock’ record (‘rock’ in quotation marks, as told by guitarist Peter Buck). Trading in the mandolins and acoustic guitars of the previous two efforts for heavy distortion and effects pedals, what emerged is arguably the band’s most musically confident record.
Opener “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” storms out of the gate with its bright, distorted chords and Michael Stipe’s newfound swagger. On Monster, Stipe opens up as a showman, and not just a frontman for the band. He brings a confidence and sexuality that’s only been hinted at on previous records.
The band’s confidence extends beyond sheer volume and sees the band exploring the limits of its sound. The fuzzed-out “Circus Envy” and ringing “Crush with Eyeliner” point toward glam, while “Strange Currencies” and “Tongue” feel inspired by Motown; “King of Comedy” moves like some kind of electro-funk jam that – when you really think about it – has no business being on an alternative rock album in 1994.
All of the R.E.M.’s genre experimentation on Monster means it kind of doesn’t have a coherent throughline. The band moves with reckless abandon from one track to the next: the eerie, late night come-on of “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” abruptly transitions to the punkish, almost unintelligible “Star 69” and the uptempo, glammy “I Took Your Name” leads into the My Bloody Valentine-like naked emotion of “Let Me In.” Yet, it mostly works in the album’s favour, giving Monster a careening energy not present on the band’s previous, more stately records.
Monster is a pivotal in the R.E.M.’s career trajectory, coming at the height of their popularity. The conscious direction the band took with the album helped shape the rest of its career. The follow-up album – 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi – narrowed the focus Monster (and was the band’s last great record), while Stipe would become even more confident as showman on subsequent albums. It may not reach the heights of the band’s other albums like Reckoning, Life’s Rich Pageant, or Automatic (how could it?), but is an incredibly strong and unique record in R.E.M.’s already distinguished catalogue.