It is so much easier to talk about Monster than Automatic for the People. Especially as I have so much I can talk about, which has nothing to do with music. I became a proper REM fan (not only listening to one album, but also reading interviews, buying older albums, waiting for new singles / albums to be released) after going to a concert of the Monster tour. It was in this really random place, at a swimming lake next to a small provincial town called Düren. It was great, it was a mini festival with Oasis (who were having sound issues), Cranberries (who were very relaxing, we were just sitting on the beach chillin' and listening to them) and REM. I had only listened to Automatic for the People by then, when they came on everyone stood up, so I (small 13 year old) wandered to the front to see better. REM fans are really nice, so they just keep letting me go further and further to the front until I ended up really close to the stage. I heard a lot of songs for the first time and sang along to the rest. It was amazing and I had a lot of fun, while my brother was frantically looking for his baby sister almost having a heart attack.
It was really lucky that the concert even happened. The tour was very unlucky, earlier the year Bill Berry had had an aneurysm on stage in Switzerland and one day after the concert in Düren Mike Mills had to go to hospital for intestinal adhesion.
Speaking of Mike Mills, this is the time he finally realized that he is in a rock band. For 14 years, he had looked like this:
Same glasses, same hairstyle and never seemed to age. Then during Monster, he grew out his hair (while Stipe shaved his off due to bolding) and decided to wear these amazing suits:
The rest of the band stayed pretty much in T-shirt and jeans look, so the band pictures always look like this random country star walked into the picture. If it was a mid life crisis, I approve of it, if I had a job where I could get away with wearing lots of sequence, that is what I would be doing as well. He even bleached his hair later (and fought as much against yellow tinge as I do) and CHANGED HIS GLASSES, which was a sacrilege (I'm not going to talk about the soul patch, because I refuse to acknowledge it's existence). I stopped listening to REM in 2001, so when I googled pictures for this post, I got reminded of the cruel passing of time, the always young looking Mills has become an old man, white hair and all.
During the promotion of this album Stipe came out as queer. Privately he had been out since the early 80s, but had been reluctant to publicly discuss his sex life, especially as the press was eager to put a defining label (gay, bi, etc) on something he considers inherently fluent. Years of awkward speculation about his health in the middle of the Aids crisis was a further deterrent. Years later, the press decided to have him come out again, when he mentioned his partner in an interview. So REM released a press announcement
, which I love. I don´t know if the themes on Monster about identity, obsessiveness and sex were a reaction to the decision to come out or if the decision to come out was influenced by the themes in the lyrics.
REM had not toured for 4 years and decided it is time again. The last two albums had been low and mid tempo acoustic albums, so they set out to make a rock record again, to have something to tour on. The album is heavily inspired by glam rock. They decided to use ALL the effects on the electric guitar. They even used a tremolo effect on the bass a few times. The result is an album that is really close to 50 minutes of white noise. It alienated a lot of people. It sold well, but very soon copies could be found in the used record racks. The producer Scott Litt, who had been with them since Document, regretted the decisions made mixing this album and when the 25th anniversary of it came around he completely remixed it (REM themselves stand with their original decisions). I listened to both.
I like the original Monster, because I have a phobia of fire crackers. Let me explain. Between New Years and Carnival school kids in my area have a lot of access to fire crackers. The ones illegal in Germany are bought in the Netherlands, which is a bus ride away. Going to school during this time was hell for me. So when I was 14 I had my trusty walk-man and the Automatic for the People / Monster tape from my sister. Monster, with it's continuous noise level, turned up at maximum volume and a thick woolen hat was my daily armour and saved me from a few panic attacks (and reduced my pretend sick days).
Listening to it now, I still prefer many of the original versions. What's the Frequency Kenneth still rocks and the guitar effect over the chourus (removed in the remix) is a great hook. Star 69 (my favourite song from the album) is so much better with the reverb effect over the vocals, with Stipe singing over himself. That is the thing with some of the effects, they sometimes had a stylistic reason to be there. most so on Let Me In. The song is dedicated to Kurt Cobain and the lyrics are drowned under heavily distorted guitar. But that is Kurt Cobain's guitar (gifted to Mills, who plays it upside down, because Kurt Cobain was left handed). Why would you remove this?
The only two songs I find majorly improved in the remix are Crush with Eyeliner and King of Comedy. The little guitar riff in Crush with Eyeliner emphasizes the glam of the song and King of Comedys strange drum track is emphasized and by enhancing the background vocals (which sound like Stipe just got everyone in the studio to sing along) the overall dark song gets some much need humour at the end.
On this album Buck gets to really stretch himself. He abandons his usual Rickenbacker and apreggiated playing style for a Les Paul and rock riffs and short solos with lots of effects added for fun. Buck is somewhat underrated as a guitarist. He never was found of the typical minutes long show off guitar solo and preferred to play a melodic guitar and other acoustic string instruments (dulcimer and mandolin especially). Monster is just a further example of his versatility as a guitar player.
I love Star 69. It has so much going on. The crazy vocals with the reverb effect over it, a bass line you can sing along to, a lot of cool guitar riffs in between and Berry working the drums as hard as he can. The small "woooho" in the background vocals makes me smile every time.
Tongue gets the price for most depressing lyrics. I never listened to them before. I was happier when I thought it was a fun song about oral sex. Seriously Stipe.
Let Me In moved me before I even knew the history of the song. It is such an honest expression of grief.
I always thought Bang and Blame is an OK song. I don't know why youtube keeps autoplaying to it. Now I'm kind of annoyed by it.
Closing thoughts: It is no surprise to me that this is the album where the commercial success began to fade. It is not exactly accessible and not only because of mixing decisions. The songs are a balancing act between swagger and ugly, dark and disturbing, with the latter overshadowing the former in many songs. If one compares it to Garbage, for example, who released their album a year after and are also glam inspired, their songs lean towards the swagger (and are poppier) it is really clear that it was not so much the idea, but the dark place it ended in that made people tire of it. That is not me saying it is bad, just difficult.
When REM released Out of Time, they decided to go against their usual style and take a risk. The stars aligned and they hit the Zeitgeist, with Monster, this did not happen. Many of the fans who had loved Out of Time and Automatic for the People could not relate to Monster, the older fans from the 80s had grown up and were busy wit mortgages, kids and jobs to keep following bands they liked in their youth. Teenagers were getting into the new punk movement, like Green Day and Offspring or Hip Hop and had little interest in some 80s rock band, which kept releasing depressing albums. Except for me. I was the only REM fan my age I knew. I was waiting for the new album to come out, waited to hear the new single on MTV. New Adventures in Hifi was the first REM album I actually bought.