Opinion: R.E.M. revisits its weird flex with ‘Monster’ deluxe reissue

R.E.M. Monster, Michael Stipe

R.E.M’s ‘Monster’ is getting the 25th anniversary deluxe tissue treatment this week.

In the early ’90s, R.E.M. was like our furry, little emotional support animal. The erudite alt-rock band from Athens, Georgia burst into the mainstream of American music with their jangly 1992 release, Automatic for the People. The album was full of powerfully sad songs that somehow also managed to be life-affirming. When Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994, the world used an R.E.M. song, “Everybody Hurts,” to help them process their pain. Listening to the band’s albums was like talking to a trusted friend, one who knew the pain deep down in your soul.

But with the band’s next album everything changed. Monster (1994) was R.E.M.’s weird flex: an over-the-top rock album saturated with distortion, propelled by power chords and guitar feedback, and voiced by singer Michael Stipe’s newly found enthusiasm. Now, 25 years later, Monster is getting the deluxe rerelease treatment with a five-disc set, out Friday, that collects remasters, a series of demos, remixes and a live concert recorded in Chicago.

The new box set provides an interesting window into the band’s musical shift and serves as a historical document chronicling a tumultuous time in rock and roll.

While the remastered tracks don’t sound much different from the originals, the overdriven guitars serve as pointed reminder of how much the band’s sound was changing. There’s not a jangly guitar to be found anywhere. The overdriven power chords of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” seem to announce the arrival of a new musical entity. The song’s powerful music lays the bedrock for a new lyrical dynamic from vocalist Michael Stipe.

“What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” was the query put to newsman Dan Rather in 1986 before he was assaulted by two men on the streets of New York City. Stipe’s seemingly blithe referencing of this assault feels almost as out of character as the power chords issuing from Peter Buck’s guitar. Just two years before, Stipe was busy telling us that “everybody hurts” while identifying as a loner “in the corner” who was “losing my religion.”

While the music matches the lyrical aggression perfectly, listeners couldn’t help feeling at the time that they were seeing a new side of a friend they’d known for years.

The collection also features a remix of “Let Me In,” the band’s moving tribute to Kurt Cobain in the wake of his death. The song is stripped of some of its adornments including the closing synthesizer part. The more minimalist approach sends the powerful poetry of Stipe’s lyrics to the foreground: “Yeah all those stars drip down like butter/ And promises are sweet/ We hold out our pans with our hands to catch them/ We eat them up, drink them up, up, up, up.”

Stipe’s mingling of cosmic and ordinary realms perfectly capture Cobain’s transcendent talent clad in thrift store finds. But musically this isn’t “Everybody Hurts” with its sparse and retro guitar and sensitive lyricism. The lyrics seem to hover over a turbulent storm of distorted guitars. Again, the juxtaposition seems appropriate when considering the way pain, violence and artistic transcendence combined in Cobain’s life and art. Cobain and Stipe formed a powerful friendship before his death, with Cobain asking Stipe to be daughter Frances Bean’s godfather.

The box set’s collection of demos reveals a set of songs that sound much more similar to R.E.M.’s older material, prompting listeners to wonder when exactly in the recording process the band decided to crank up the amps. Songs like “Pete’s Hit” and “Uptempo Ricky” feature the jangly guitars and sparse arrangements featured on earlier albums. “Mike’s Gtr” even features an acoustic guitar. Eventually these musical elements were eschewed in favor of a more aggressive sound. So these demos don’t really reveal the way the songs on the album evolved, but they help document the band’s incredible musical transformation.

Similarly, the remixes are not dramatic do-overs of the songs, but instead seem to content to make some small changes around the edges. The remix of “Crushed with Eyeliner” features some new “la la las” from Stipe on the intro but otherwise remains largely unchanged. “King of Comedy” sounds vaguely more malevolent in its remised state, but it’s not entirely clear what musical elements have been altered.

The box set’s live double album may prove to be the most coveted among fans. The concert recording, made on tour in Chicago in June 1995 captures the intensity of the band’s new sound buoyed no doubt by the crowd’s enthusiasm. The concert recording features most of the songs from Monster along with a smattering of older material and a preview of “Undertow,”which would would appear on 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

The concert album features earlier hits like “Losing My Religion” and “Everyone Hurts” from Automatic for the People, “Orange Crush” from 1988’s Green, and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It, and I Feel Fine,” from 1987’s Document.

Monster marked a turning point in the career of R.E.M. The band debuted a harder and more caustic brand of rock and roll. Stipe’s sensitivity was juxtaposed with distorted, angry-sounding guitars, and pummeling drums. For fans this transformation seemed to offer something new and different to love about the band. R.E.M.’s metamorphosis was not viewed by fans as a betrayal the way Bob Dylan’s sudden embrace of electric guitars was. There are no cries of “Judas!” heard from the audience on the live album.

The Monster box set is just the latest from R.E.M. which has released similar collections for each of its albums on its 25th anniversary. Presumably, fans can continue to study the band’s evolution using subsequent reissues including; 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi should come next. It was the last album to feature original drummer Bill Berry, who left the band in 1997.

Follow writer David Gill at Twitter.com/Songotaku

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