Heavy Criticism over album revisited 20 years later

In all relativity 1994 was a turbulent year for the generation X rock scene. The reluctant and tortured media darling poster child for generation X, Kurt Cobain had died. In the wake of Cobain’s suicide it appeared that the gilded grunge age was collapsing. Cobain was good friends with R.E.M. front man, Michael Stipe who had also lost his friend, River Phoenix a few months earlier.

R.E.M. was a band trapped in an uncomfortable transition from young artists, to elder statesmen in the vein of alternative rock. They had reached a career high with 1992’s “Automatic For the People.” The album contained several iconic tracks such as “Man on the Moon,” “Everybody Hurts,” and “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight.”

Their next album, “Monster,” was the product of Stipe’s disassociation. Although it debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, receiving high marks from certain critics, many reacted negatively toward it.

Stylistically, “Monster” was a departure from the R.E.M. sound most were used to hearing. Stipe’s singing and Bill Berry’s drumming were lower in the mix while Peter Buck’s heavily distorted and delayed guitar dominated the album’s mix. The tones of the album were something different than what the fans expected.

With each song Stipe wrote and sang in different characters. It was something different than what people knew of R.E.M. and although it had a gritty feel to it, it was not a stab at grunge. In all aspects, “Monster” was the product of many converging variables that premiered in a year that was already marred by the death of Cobain.

The song “Let Me In” was a tribute to Kurt Cobain and the album was dedicated to River Phoenix. Bassist Mike Mills and Berry both fell ill during the recording sessions and Stipe and Buck left to visit family members. The album was conceived at Crossover Soundstage in Atlanta, Georgia. The band figured out the songs playing while standing up as if in concert. The album could best be described as what happened when R.E.M. came together during a stressful transitional point, eager to tour again.

The opening track, “What’s the Frequency Kenneth,” was a hard guitar-driven song that referenced an attack on the news anchor Dan Rather with Stipe in character as madman struggling to comprehend youth culture. The second track, “Crush With Eyeliner,” is a song that takes work to understand. It’s all about identity. At the end of the day we all invent ourselves and often fake traits when we want to catch the right attention.

The Cobain tribute song, “Let Me In,” was a well-written tribute to a friend lost to suicide. After singing, “I had a mind to stop you,” Stipe follows with “I can’t see all the birds looking down and laughing at me/Clumsy, crawling out of my skin.” The song may seem lyrically simple, but is ultimately sincere.

R.E.M. is one of those few bands that can be both a hip and intellectual hidden gem and the sort of group any of your friends that don’t collet records could recognize. For me, “Monster” is the sort of album that separates the R.E.M. fans from those who recognize a song or two from the albums “Out of Time” or “Automatic for the People.”

After 20 years, the album hasn’t spoiled. It is firmly planted in my R.E.M. collection and gets a revisit from me more than just on its anniversary. My advice to anyone who may want to explore the band further is to start with “Murmur,” taking each album in order and to be careful not to lose momentum when you hit “Monster,” even if it doesn’t sound like the R.E.M. you are used to.