Monster (25th Anniversary Edition) [2019 Remaster]
In 1992—right around the time when grunge was exploding, and bringing soot, horror, and rage back to rock music—R.E.M. made the gorgeous, pastoral, and largely acoustic Automatic For the People. The band members hadn’t toured since 1989, and they wanted to get back on the road via a new album that rocked hard. The result: 1994’s aptly titled Monster. “This is the first record where we dared to be really dumb,” guitarist Peter Buck said shortly after it was released. Monster is largely built around Buck’s simple, pounding guitar riffs, which emulate 1970s glam rock acts like Slade and T. Rex, often with a pulsating tremolo effect. Michael Stipe sings through a windstorm of distortion, and with Buck playing more simply, most of the musical color comes from Mike Mills, whose bass and keyboard parts always add an expansive counterpoint to R.E.M. records. Stipe’s mood was as raw as the music. The band’s increasing fame made him feel like a “dancing monkey,” he said, and in the course of making the record, two close friends died: actor River Phoenix and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who was a huge R.E.M. fan. Stipe wrote “Let Me In” after Cobain’s suicide, and it’s a pained, dissonant sound sculpture that seems to implicate needy audiences in celebrity deaths. “Here comes that awful feeling again,” Stipe sings in “Circus Envy,” which was inspired by David Lynch’s 1980 freak-show drama The Elephant Man. That phrase could function as Monster’s subtitle. With the exception of “Strange Currencies,” Monster is a harsh, cold, claustrophobic record without any balance or relief, with songs that take impassive looks at everything from tabloid TV to joyless sex to Gen-X alienation. Buck may have been reaching for the riffs of Slade and T. Rex, but the 1970s band that R.E.M. most closely resembles here is The Stooges, whose assaultive 1973 album Raw Power remains a classic punk-rocker bummer.