Review of R.E.M.’s “big dumb rock album” that just so happens to be one of their biggest successes
By Carter Bagley
After releasing two slower-tempo and methodical albums in “Out Of Time” and “Automatic For The People” R.E.M. wanted to release a faster, rock album like their older catalog in many ways and with 1994’s “Monster” that’s exactly what they delivered. The record is dedicated to Michael Stipe’s good friend and one of my favorite actors of all time, River Phoenix, who died unexpectedly in 1993 from a drug overdose. It’s also in tribute to Kurt Cobain who Stipe was friends with and was going to work with before Cobain infamously committed suicide in spring of 1994. The album starts off with the fantastic and energetic “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” and with Peter Buck’s explosive and classic rock sounding guitar riffs and Michael Stipe’s brilliant vocals it undoubtedly sounds like the rock-oriented sound they promised. It was a massively successful single and it’s among my own personal favorites from the band because it’s just so fun and positive and gives fantastic vibes. They follow this up with “Crush With Eyeliner” which isn’t as good as the first track but it’s still a great song and one I enjoy when I put on the album and the same goes for track 3 “King Of Comedy” which is kind of the same thing for me. The first song that breaks from that sounds a little bit is “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” which isn’t great at all but it’s a nice enough song with decently written lyrics and the lead vocals really save it for me. Track 6 jumps right on board again though with a fast-paced rock and roll sound in “Star 69” which is fun and has great energy but it’s just filler despite all of that. It just cements the record for me as just an enjoyable alternative rock album and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The tempo to “Strange Currencies” is definitely slower and Buck’s lead guitar is charming and chime-like and Michael Stipe’s lyrics and vocals really make this an extremely underrated and overlooked gem of a song. It sounds more like something from “Automatic For The People” although it fits cosily in the tracklist to “Monster”. “Tongue” continues on with the slower tempo but it sounds almost churchy with a muffled organ in the background and the lead vocals are high pitched and smooth and it’s a little weird but after a while it grows on you and it’s a song I really like by them. “Bang and Blame” kind of picks up the rock sound again to some degree with kind of a “Life’s Rich Pageant” sound to it a little but not as good. The chorus is nonsense and the lyrics are mediocre but it’s an enjoyable care-free song and if you like their sound already there’s nothing different about this song to challenge that. “I Took Your Name” has the more rock n roll sound to it as well but it’s nothing special and it’s no doubt just filler. Michael Stipe wrote “Let Me In” in tribute to Kurt Cobain and he kind of sings like him a little bit and it features heavy guitar from Peter Buck. It brings the record back to quality and I really enjoy this song as a whole. “Circus Envy” is kind of the same thing for me and the lyrics are decent but the chorus is catchy and I quite enjoy the instrumentation to it. There’s nothing really to talk about though as it’s not one of the best by any means it’s just mindlessly enjoyable. The album closes on the song “You” which is pretty good and Stipe sings a little different than how he usually does. I do think it could’ve been harder hitting though if the band worked on it and tightened it up a little bit. Either way this isn’t one of their best records by any means but it definitely has some great songs that make it very enjoyable and exciting and the filler songs are still enjoyable enough to keep your attention. Michael Stipe and Peter Buck are the only ones that really get to shine in this album though as Mike Mills’ bass and Bill Berry’s drums aren’t nearly as prominent as opposed to other albums. This album seems to be forgotten a little bit by time which is weird because it’s one of their best selling by far compared to their earlier and later stuff. I think it just didn’t have the staying power that others had despite being just a very enjoyable rock record.
Highlights: What’s The Frequency Kenneth?, Crush With Eyeliner, Strange Currencies, Tongue, Let Me In
Lowlights: Star 69, I Took Your Name