Monster wasn’t R.E.M.’s “comeback” album or their Get Back. After two gargantuan hit albums of down-tempo, mostly acoustic ruminations (Out of Time and Automatic for the People), Monster now sounds more like the next logical step for the band — it’s loose, loud, and unsentimental, something more akin to their Emotional Rescue or maybe even Lou Reed’s New York than some kind of roots record. Peter Buck’s guitar is the record’s undulating, fuzzy star, while Michael Stipe sang about clumsy hedonism, irony, coming out, and defecating on circus-goers. Stipe does a great Curtis Mayfield impression (or is it Michael Hutchence?) on “Tongue,” Buck makes his guitar strobe on “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (and “Crush With Eyeliner” and “Bang and Blame”), and they channel the most perfect Kurt Cobain tribute with the drum-less “Let Me In.”
Monster wasn’t reliving the “glory days” of Murmur or Reckoning — it was too brash for that — and it wasn’t aping the booming grunge scene at the time. It was a negative image of the two previous LPs, an unapologetically mainstream expression of Big Box Rock for all the sad tomatoes out there just looking for something lose themselves in. The record went to Number One, the singles didn’t do as well as the ones from the album’s predecessors, but it was a record of the times, for the times, and a quarter of a century later, it still sounds unique.
A new, six-disc anniversary box set offers a holistic look at the album with demos, a completely remixed version of the record, and a live recording. There’s also a Blu-ray with the album in surround sound, the band’s Road Movie concert film, and all the videos they made around that time. But what’s most curious is the way they’ve pulled back the veil to show us how on how Monster became what it was.
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The second disc contains a bunch of rather tame, mostly instrumental demo recordings that are a bit like Music Minus One sketches of R.E.M. (or maybe Hindu Love Gods) songs. You have to wonder how Michael Stipe (or Warren Zevon) would have filled them out, but their most potent quality is their overwhelming R.E.M.-iness, something Mike Mills has said the group tried to run away from with Monster. The band prepared dozens of songs for the album but put out only 12, so the demos are like pieces of apocrypha that show how they arrived at Monster.
“Pete’s Hit” could be a distant relative of “Stand” or “So. Central Rain.” “Harlan Country With Whistling” is a country & western ditty they could have sold to Johnny Cash (and charge extra for the whistling) ahead of his American Recordings comeback. “Mike’s Gtr” has singing deep in the mix and pretty gospel organ, but you have to struggle to make out the words — a characteristic of R.E.M.’s early-Eighties LPs that made its way onto Monster. The only song here that properly features Stipe is “Revolution 4-21” (later released on the Batman and Robin soundtrack) but it feels oddly generic, lacking the swagger they found by the time they made the record.
More curious than the demos, though, are Monster co-producer Scott Litt’s remixes, which make up disc three. Unhappy with the mix we have become accustomed to over the past quarter century, Litt rejiggered each track, saying now that the original was a rush job. Some of them are better than the previous editions, some are worse (why did he cut the floor-shaking guitar of “Kenneth” and play up the ultra-poppy background vocals?) but what’s most crucial here is the concept of just what makes a song. The fact that R.E.M. recorded enough raw materials to make “Kenneth” sound austerely pristine is curious, as is the “La-la-la” intro to “Crush With Eyeliner,” some extra vocals on “Let Me In,” and ethereal, This Mortal Coil–style dream guitar on “Bang and Blame.”
There’s more space in each of the new mixes, and Stipe’s voice cuts through the guitars more than it did. Part of the appeal of the original was the way his voice was buried in the mix, giving it almost a claustrophobic experience — you had to dive into the noise to make sense of his words (which are printed for the first time in the booklet) — but here it’s more like the Stipe show.
Both the singer and Mills have said they don’t necessarily love the new mixes and were surprised when Litt told them he felt he had failed them, but it’s still an important part of the story. What would have happened if R.E.M. had gone with this version? It shows that the record wasn’t so much a back-to-the-roots affair; they were still experimenting in the studio. Buck would have had to play the songs live completely differently, which is evident on the live recordings in the box set, which offer up generally faithful renditions of the songs, recorded in Chicago a few months after drummer Bill Berry suffered a double aneurysm while on the road. But mostly on these recordings, the band sounds happy to be live and alive. Stipe jokes about, how they’re going to play a song followed by another song and then another song; it’s charming and playful. They sound rejuvenated but with the perspective of a band with more than a decade of experience under its belt, and that is better than making a comeback anyway.