A Word, A Signal, A Nod, A Little Breath - R.E.M.'s Monster at 25
When you’re all of 11 years old, it’s difficult—maybe even impossible, really—to have an understanding of a piece of art, or entertainment, and its entire scope; like, the more than likely tumultuous, compelling backstory behind its creation, how it was received by the public, both critically and commercial, upon its unveiling, and, eventually, how time may look upon it.
When I was 11 years old, in the fall of 1994, my parents’ marriage was falling apart—by the spring of the following year, they would divorce, and the house I grew up in would be sold; my grandfather, Thomas, would pass away—from what, I have no idea, because I was maybe too young to understand, or be told what was happening with his health, and 25 years later, I am still too nervous to ask questions. I never got to say goodbye to him, which is something that still haunts me, ever so slightly, to this day, and the only thing I remember from his funeral is hysterically crying at one point during his eulogy, after I had been mentioned in it by name.
When I was 11 years old, in the fall of 1994, I had bought The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, on cassette, and it was the first thing I purchased that had the iconic ‘Parent Advisory’ sticker adhered to it. I was, as expected, completely unprepared for what would happen when I would put it in my Walkman, and press play.
When I was 11 years old, in the fall of 1994, “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” and it’s snarling, distended guitar riff, was everywhere, and R.E.M.’s ninth album, Monster, with it orange cover, was ubiquitous.
I can still remember the video for the song—the band playing in what was more or less a warehouse—Michael Stipe, in a t-shirt with a star printed in the center of it, flailing around with the microphone stand in front of him.
What I didn’t understand at the time, and wouldn’t until much later, was while the album was commercially successful (debuting at number one on the Billboard chart) and relatively well received by critics, it has also gone on to have a somewhat maligned, possibly misunderstood legacy in the band’s body of work, depending on who you ask. And, subjectively speaking, it represents a real, relatively drastic, turning point, even as late in the game as it was, for the band as a whole.
R.E.M., bowing out as gracefully as they could in 2011, have taken to curating elaborate, lavish reissues in celebration of an album’s respective 25th anniversary; as they did in 2016 with Out of Time, and as they did the following year with Automatic for The People, in celebration of Monster’s 25th anniversary, the band have overseen a mostly comprehensive reissue of the album—available in myriad formats, the collection contains a remastered version of the original album, as well as a new, alternate mix from Monster’s producer Scott Litt (who was, apparently, never happy with how the record turned out), alongside a handful of mostly instrumental demo tracks, and a lengthy live recording, taped in the summer of 1995, from the band’s three night stint in Chicago, during the successful but at times ill-fated tour in support of the record.
Apparently, Monster has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most common compact discs you’ll find traded in at a store that sells used CDs—you may still be able to find a copy of it in a second hand store today. Maybe it was just too ubiquitous in 1994 (it has sold two million copies in the United States) and as people were pairing down their collections in favor of digital storage in the early 2000s, perhaps they found it, along with the other very ubiquitous R.E.M. albums, like Automatic for The People and Out of Time (four million copies each in the United States) were things they didn’t need to, or want to, hang onto physical copies of.
Or maybe it is just not an album people were interested in taking with them through life—maybe it was something that was easy to leave behind.
It’s worth mentioning, at this point, that my first experience with Monster, as a whole, did not come in the fall of 1994, upon the album’s release; it was 12 years later, when I bought a used copy of the album from a Half Price Books, in Apple Valley, Minnesota, along with a used copy of Automatic for The People—bought shortly after my wife and I first moved in together.
However; my first experience with the music from Monster, outside of regularly seeing the videos for “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” or “Bang and Blame,” was buying the cassette single for “Strange Currencies,” the third song from Monster released as a single, in the spring of 1995—a song I commonly refer to as my favorite R.E.M. song (everybody should probably have one of those, right?), as well as probably being one of my favorite songs of all time.
As maligned and possibly misunderstood (and underrated) as Monster has come to be in the 25 years since its release, it has the distinction of being both a very simple album—or, at least, an album that started with the idea of being simple, as well as being incredibly complicated. The compelling backstory of Monster finds the band not so much trying to ‘redefine’ themselves, but in preparation for the projected tour in support of the album, the band wanted to, apparently, make a big, loud record that would translate well into a live setting, as opposed to the pensive acoustic leanings of both Out of Time and Automatic for The People.
The recording sessions, like the subsequent tour in 1994 and 1995, were hampered by health issues for members of the band, as well as personal crises—both River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain died while the band was writing and recording the record. The album itself is dedicated to Phoenix, and Michael Stipe penned “Let Me In” in memory of Cobain.
Tensions within the band itself were also running high throughout the somewhat lengthy writing and recording process—for as ‘simple’ as the album was supposed to be, it became a chore to mix it in such a way to leave it simple, raw, and live sounding; and Stipe was still writing lyrics as the deadline to finish the record up and turn it in quickly approached. The album’s Wikipedia—though curiously not mentioned in the essay found in the liner notes on the reissue—talks about the band getting to the point where they were never recording in the studio at the same time, and when they were crammed into producer Scott Litt’s home studio, the tensions boiled over, and the group more or less broke up (but clearly worked things out) before the album was completed.
Knowing that, and listening to Monster with that in mind, you can kind of hear those tensions, pressures, and frustrations, buried deep in the loud, angry guitars that make up a bulk of the album’s arrangements.
I hesitate to describe Monster as a dark record—every R.E.M. has moments where there is a shadow cast over it; but even in its most infectious, accessible moments, there’s a palpable, haunting desperation throughout. The distorted, abrasive guitar work from Peter Buck certainly helps set the tone, as does the way Stipe chose to write the lyrics—writing from different places, and creating characters or personas to tell the stories through.
A number of critical evaluations compare the band’s change in sound to adopting a ‘glam rock’ aesthetic—the vague sexual tensions in Stipe’s lyrics help there, too, though he downplays it—but outside of the minor pomp of “Crush With Eyeliner” and the slinking, explosive melancholy of “Bang and Blame,” I would never call this a ‘glam’ record. It’s dirty, noisy, and shadowy while still somehow relying on huge hooks that keep you tuned in to a bulk of it; it’s the sound of a band sick of each other, sick of itself, and on the verge of falling apart, but desperately trying to keep it together, and come out okay on the other end.
There are parts of Monster that haven’t aged well—and maybe they were a tough sell, or difficult to take, right out of the gate in 1994—the noisy, strangely industrial, electronica tinged mantras of “King of Comedy” come to mind almost right away as being one of the album’s less successful executed moments, as does the brash, punky “Star 69”—the refrain is infectious, yes, and it isn’t ‘unsuccessful’ in its execution, but it’s also not one of the finest songs, or at least memorable for the right reasons—lyrically, it’s a little cringey.
But 25 years later, there are moments that have aged well, or were never in any real danger of not sounding just as good, if not better, than they did in 1994.
The opening guitar chords, powered through heavy crunch and distortion, of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” are iconic—you can’t deny that. Who would have thought that three guitar chords—D, A, and G, strummed with such conviction, maybe even self-aware, winking conviction, would, not so much give you shivers, or frisson, but that they, 25 years later, would still make you stand at attention—and would make you full of anticipation for when the rest of the band kicks in, and Stipe yelps out the song’s opening, titular lyric.
The song itself, aside from being an audacious, bombastic opening track, that musically is the most freewheeling, rollicking on the album—at times it seems like it’s going to boil over with just how much energy the band manages to pack into it—but the song itself is steeped in a small amount of mythology—from both where its seemingly non sequitur of a title comes from, as well as the place Stipe wrote the song’s lyrics from.
“Kenneth, what is the frequency?,’ was the expression uttered by William Trager, who famously, in 1986, assaulted newsman Dan Rather on the streets of New York, and that phrase, and image, is used almost as a conceit, or way in to the rest of the song’s lyrics.
Stipe was 33 during the writing and recording of Monster, which is pretty wild to think about, given that the band formed in 1980; in reflecting on “Kenneth,” Stipe looks at some of the lyrics as being ridiculous. “I was no longer a young man,” he explains in the liner notes to the Monster reissue. “I loved the premise of someone slightly older than me desperately trying to tap into, identify with, or fit in with a younger generation—and just failing miserably at it.”
A bulk of Monster is a reflection of the band’s mainstream fame, as well as an exploration of irony, and the media’s attempt to understand Generation X—“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” is the thesis statement of the record, right down to it quoting a line from the film Slacker, which, in turn, is apparently lifted from one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards: “Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy,” as well as the lyric that arrive right before the song’s refrain—“You said that irony was the shackles of youth.”
Then, there is, of course, the scathing lyric that opens “King of Comedy”—“Make your money with a suit and tie,” which is followed by a number of other scathing lyrics relating to the ideas of fame, success, and looking at art as a ‘commodity.’
In the essay accompanying the reissue of Monster, Stipe said he wrote the lyrics with the idea of being something the was ‘a bit removed,’ and references the self-aware, slightly removed nature of ‘glam rock, adding that it “Comments on the medium while at the same time exploiting the medium.” “Kenneth” isn’t so much a bait and switch as far as the idea of this being a relatively straight forward (self-aware) rock record, but things do begin to take a turn almost immediately after that with the noisy tremolo and soaring refrain of “Crush With Eyeliner,” which features the very memorable lyric, “She’s a sad tomato,” as well as the sensual, slithering, kind of dirty “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream,” which is one of the few R.E.M. songs that manages to sneak in a surprisingly ribald lyric (“Star Me Kitten” is one of the others)—“Are you coming to ease my headache? Do you give good head? Am I good in bed?”
It also seems worth noting that in an interview w/r/t Monster in 2014, Stipe expressed his dissatisfaction with the song, reiterating he was stretching himself as a writer, writing from different places, and would have liked the chance to re-work or scrap completely songs like “You,” and “King of Comedy.”
Structurally speaking, Monster takes some fascinating turns after the halfway point, opening with the jaunty, piano and organ slink and shuffle of “Tongue,” which isn’t exactly out of place, but also, tonally, doesn’t match the rest of the record (the lyrics, if you can make them out through Stipe’s dramatic falsetto, are devastating), perhaps making it a bit of a reprieve before it dips back into the heavy guitar distortion; later on, there’s “I Took Your Name,” which I’ve always felt, has sounded almost exactly like “Crush With Eyeliner,” right down to the emphasis on the tremolo effect on the guitar—though as a song, it’s missing that gigantic hook, and takes a much more reserved approach to the anatomy of the song.
Pointing things back into a ‘rock’ direction though, after the shuffling whimsy of “Tongue,” is “Bang and Blame,” released as the second single from Monster, in October of 1994, and was the band’s most successful single since 1991’s “Shiny Happy People,” and its commercial performance is somewhat distinctive of an impending change in contemporary popular music at the time. R.E.M. didn’t stop being a successful or commercially viable band, but subsequent singles, both off of Monster, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and Up, did not fare as well on the singles charts—implying that tastes weren’t so much changing, but that the emphasis ‘rock’ singles was waning.
Not the angriest song on the record, “Bang and Blame” is perhaps the darkest sounding—or the moodiest. There’s something about the way all the elements of the song tumble together—the rolling bass line, steady rhythm, and the sounds of the electric guitar cutting through in waves—and Stipe’s reserved, plaintive vocals during the song's verses, as well as when the song explodes into its simple, though accusatory refrain.
Following the near My Bloody Valentine levels of guitar squalling and emotional anguish on “Let Me In,” the album kind of loses a little momentum, and a little direction, given how it started on such an exciting, energetic note—“Circus Envy” is snarling and bombastic, though not nearly as enormous sounding as some other other songs on the album, and the whole thing concludes with the brooding, “You.”
If you were to ask me now, 25 years later, why, at the age of 12, I was drawn to the song “Strange Currencies,” I’m not sure I could tell you. I’m not sure why I could tell you I liked it enough to purchase the cassette single; but why I hadn’t just opted to buy the whole album at any point after its release.
Perhaps at some point, I too would have outgrown its orange ubiquitous cover, and traded it in to a second had shop, only to have to buy another copy of it later on when I started missing it.
It was a song that I obviously discovered at the time of its release in the early 1990s, but it was something that I rediscovered much later on, both after seeing it mentioned in the longform interview Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a book published in 2010, as an unedited, sprawling conversation between writer David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace, following the release of Infinite Jest. “Strange Currencies” is referenced, specifically, as one of the songs Wallace was really into—“I mean, I will find one or two songs—I listened to ‘Strange Currencies’ over and over again all summer,” he tells Lipsky, and the song itself is used, partially, probably for minor emotional manipulation, in the trailer to the film1 based on the book.
It was a song that, only occasionally I guess based on my somewhat poor record keeping, was worked into the set of my radio show, during its run from 2010 to 2012.
In the same time signature as “Everybody Hurts,” the lore behind “Strange Currencies” was that it was almost left off of the album because it sounded too similarly to “Everybody Hurts.”
And yes, I guess there are similarities, even outside of sharing the same tempo; they are both slow and dramatic, which, even with a band as diverse as R.E.M was proving they were capable of being, is one of the things they did best. But while there are swelling strings and a long build up until the moments of catharsis on “Everybody Hurts,” there isn’t anything like that on “Strange Currencies.” Yes, the song’s refrain is an enormous moment, but it’s the theatricality and drama throughout, both musically, as well as in Stipe’s lyrics, that makes this song for me what it is, and what it has come to represent.
There is a terrible, sad, desperation that runs throughout “Strange Currencies.” The liner notes to the Monster reissue compare the song, musically, to a song from the 1950s, and I suppose I can see where that kind of a comparison comes from with the way it’s written, though Stipe gives credit to INXS frontman Michael Hutchence for the way the song unfolds as a pop song with an intricate, deep narrative underneath.
Stipe also, in Reveal: The Story of R.E.M., claims the song is about ‘when somebody actually thinks that, through words, they’re going to be able to convince somebody that they are their one and only.’
The essay in the liner notes refers to the protagonist as ‘love lorn,’ which is accurate—but it doesn’t quite tap into the urgency with which the lyrics unfold, even as the song takes its time given the way it is paced.
It opens with the juxtaposition of ‘mean’ and ‘mean’; “I don’t know why you’re mean to me,” Stipe pleads in the first line of the song, then follows it up one line later with, “And I don’t know what you mean to me.” And even in what seems to be such a simple ‘love’ song, it’s full of evocative imagery that perfectly compliments the haunting, beautiful arrangement (even with just guitars, bass, drum, and keyboards.)
The thing is that, even with the final line of the song being “Say love’s confined,” there’s, like, no resolve within “Strange Currencies,” and it’s that fact that, while it is a pop song and even with it deliberately slow pacing, the unknowns left as the song concludes make it all the more heartbreaking once you really immerse yourself in its world.
I was discussing the 25th anniversary reissue of Monster, in passing, with a co-worker, and he expressed suspicion at the very idea of an ‘alternate mix’ being included in the package. “Does it really sound that different?,” he said with his eyebrow cocked.
And the truth is, yes, the ‘remixed’ companion that accompanies the album does sound that different.
When albums are remastered and reissues, there are times when it can be difficult to tell what, if anything, has been done—are things a little louder? Are things a little clearer? Are certain instruments pushed a little higher in the overall mix?
With the album proper, there are differences between this reissue (sourced from the original analog tapes) and the original 1994 mix of the album, but they are very very subtle; things, overall, are maybe a little sharper, and a little more robust in sound—the kind of things you may have to do a side by side comparison on, with a good pair of headphones.
However, the new ‘remix’ to Monster, put together by the album’s original producer, is not like hearing the album again for the first time, but it’s like taking a look at it through a funhouse mirror, or hearing it played from an alternate timeline.
Using alternate vocal takes—most noticeably on “Strange Currencies” where Stipe uses different phrasing and drops in a few different ad libs here and there—Scott Litt’s remix of the album scales back some of (or in a few cases, almost all of) the guitar distortion and rough edges, making the album not so much ‘more palatable,’ but definitely less dissonant and reliant on noise as a concept, or gimmick, to unify the record.
It also, in many cases, pushes Stipe’s vocal track right up to the edge of the mix—which is most noticeable almost right away on “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” “Strange Currencies,” “Bang and Blame,” and on the album’s closing track, which is far less harsh and cathartic, and now seems much more brooding and plaintive.
This change in the overall tone of the record doesn’t make these songs worse, or better, but just different; it is a little difficult to approach this portion the reissue seeing as how it, in some cases, dramatically reimagines songs that have remained the same for 25 years. And in some cases, it’s a little unsettling, or at least very surprising to hear how they’ve been remixed—the most noticeable change is Litt’s removal of the bursts of tremolo interjected throughout “Kenneth,” and I hesitate to say that it takes out a bulk of the fun, or energy, from the song, but it is somehow a little less exciting, and exponentially less iconic, in this alternate form.
With any borderline lavish reissue, the question becomes one of who the intended audience is for, in the end. As with the two previous reissue packages in 2016 and 2017, respectively, as well as a career spanning BBC recordings compilation released in 2018, there are multiple iterations of Monster available, depending on what kind of R.E.M. fan you might be.
For the fan with a passing interest in revisiting the album—perhaps the kind of fan who got rid of their Monster CD a number of years ago, a single LP edition of the album is available, and is comprised of only the original album, remastered. The next level up from this includes alternate cover art—the iconic bear graphic superimposed on static coming from a television screen—and is a double LP or CD, including the original album, as well as the Scott Litt alternate mix.
For the ‘real’ R.E.M. fan—as with the Automatic For The People and Out of Time reissues—the lavish ‘deluxe’ edition is the collection that includes the live concert recordings and disc of demos, as well as a Blu-ray comprised of music videos from the album and a concert film ‘road movie.’
The demos are, unless you have been a lifelong fan of the band, and followed them through the ups and downs of their career, complete ephemera and possibly an unnecessary addition to this collection; the live album, sprawling in its length (25 songs), captures the band during a tumultuous time, on a difficult tour—but it finds their spirits seemingly high, and shows for a that could be as serious as R.E.M. was capable of being, they have a subtle sense of humor: Stipe introduces the late arriving “Losing My Religion” as a cover of a song from 1973, that the band had only played once before.
The tour in support of Monster, the band’s first since the late 1980s, was a projected 165 dates—keeping them the road for almost an entire calendar year. The band played 135 of those shows, as the tour itself was hampered with serious health issues for members of the band: Stipe had an emergency surgery to repair a hernia, bassist Mike Mills had surgery to remove an intestinal adhesion, and perhaps most infamously, the band’s original drummer, Bill Berry collapsed on stage from a brain aneurysm—Berry would later leave the band after the release of their 1996 effort, New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
For a long time, apparently, due to the way the album was eventually received after its original success, the band was resentful of it, and only recently, at least according to the liner notes for this reissue, have come around to it, seen the value in it, as well as the value in what this represents in the larger picture within what could be looked at as the second act in their three act career.
I hesitate to say it’s easy to see why Monster was partially misunderstood and maligned, perhaps wrongly, at the time of its release—the band at this point, as well as the album itself, were too big to fail. And for an album that is partially about the idea, or concept, of irony, it’s fittingly ironic that in an effort to make something raw, live, and relatively uncomplicated—the band overthought nearly every aspect and put entirely too much pressure on themselves to make it all seem so effortless in the end.
Even with its missteps and awkward moments, I will tell people that Monster is my favorite R.E.M. album. Maybe I say that because it was the first one I, eventually, came to on my own—my parents had copies of both Out of Time (from the record club, I believe) and Automatic For The People (my mother maybe bought it at a Best Buy?)—maybe I say that because I have such a strong memory of perking up whenever that opening guitar riff would snarl when the video for “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” would come on MTV, or maybe it’s the way that the mix of feedback and distention, laid underneath the alternating C and F chords, from the start of “Strange Currencies,” and those desperate, urgent lyrics still hit me so hard after all this time.
R.E.M. set out to make a ‘big dumb rock record’ that would be fun to play live—and yes, even with all the dark corners and theatricality of Monster, there are moments of it that are still fun and surprising 25 years later. And understanding how complicated it was to make, and how much thought and effort went into the album’s themes and lyrical concepts, Monster is big, and it is a ‘rock record,’ but at the time, and now, it is anything but dumb.
1- It seems worth mentioning that while the book itself was praised upon release, Lipsky’s decision to release the longform interview in 2010 was met with some polarizing responses. I, also, have never been brave enough to watch the movie, specifically because Jason Segel portrays David Foster Wallace and in press photos from the film, called The End of The Tour, looks like a bit of a caricature. I was told by a co-worker that the movie is very good, however, but I’m not sure I am ready to believe the person who told me that.