Photo Credit: Jem Cohen
Retro Music Review

Monster Turns 25

This November, R.E.M.’s album Monster turns 25. It only feels like yesterday, when I first heard “What’s the Frequency Kenneth.” I could hardly believe the same artist brought us “Losing My Religion, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” and one of the most influential songs of my life, “Stand.” The songs on Monster sound so different than the songs of R.E.M.’s previous albums.

I always loved Monster despite the departure from folk rock and jangle pop, however, others were not so forgiving of the album. Monster received several negative reviews. AllMusic gave the album 2.5 Stars. Vulture ranked Monster as #11 out of R.E.M.’s 15 studio albums. Less than ten years after its release, record stores would give you one cent for Monster! Heck, I stumble upon jokes about Monster in music and rock nerd sites even to this day.

As Monster turns 25 I decided, to see if I agree with my former self, or with the critics of the album. Will I like Monster just as much as I did in 1994? As Monster turns 25, will I Bang my fists against the table and Blame my blindness on my love for electric guitars? Keep reading, as I rate all 12 of Monster’s songs. This is Retro Music Review: Monster turns 25!

Monster turns 25.
© 1994 Warner Bros.

What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

The first thing we hear on Monster…blaring…I mean BLARING…guitars. Honestly, I cannot think of another song before WTFK that I heard Peter Buck play so loudly, and with so much distortion. R.E.M. had, until that point, been known as a folk rock band…and yet here they are, electric guitars dominating the track. So much that we can only barely make out the drums, and can’t even hear the bass unless we listen carefully.

Of course we hear Michael Stipe’s vocals loud and clear, yet, we don’t quite understand the meaning as the lyrics seem like incoherent thoughts. We know the title line was inspired by a bizarre and brutal assault on Dan Rather. The rest of the lyrics seem to be from the point of view of the crazed assailant. After multiple listenings, we finally see a picture of mental health…or a lack thereof….through the lyrics, as the speaker of the song suffers from some form of schizophrenia.

That….that is why the loud guitars and the incomprehensive lyrics work well together. The two dominating and chaotic sounds (Buck’s Guitars and Stipe’s lyrics), give us a picture of the thought patterns of Rather’s assailant. Apart from each other, they’re powerful enough – but when combined, the two forces paint the psyche of a person with mental illness quite well.

Grade: A

Crush With Eyeliner

Crush With Eyeliner uses the same formula as What’s the Frequency Kenneth. Loud guitars, lots of effects pedals, and confusing lyrics. However, if you power through those confusing lyrics you can find something extremely beautiful, or possibly creepy.

Crush with Eyeliner is a song about a man with a crush. What kind of crush? That’s up for debate. Myself, I feel the crush is of an older man (outdated lingo and all), with a crush on a much younger woman. He’s trying to figure out what he can do to get this woman’s attention….despite the fact that she’s totally out of his league, and despite the fact that she will bring nothing but heartache and sorrow to him.

One interesting feature….the rhythm guitars simulate an elevated heartbeat, whereas the lead guitars simulate a nervousness….like the man stutters while he talks about the crush.

Again, Crush with Eyeliner uses the same formula as What’s the Frequency Kenneth. Both songs show the thoughts and the feelings of their speaker, through tattered words and loud guitars.

Grade: B+

King of Comedy

During the entirety of the song, Michael Stipe sings with a voice that can only be described as that of a robotic Leonard Cohen. The instrumentation is pretty shallow, and honestly, kind of boring. Its true…King of Comedy, really kind of seems to be “just there.” Almost as a filler song.

With that said, King of Comedy has a message that needs to be heard even today. That message: Don’t use the arts as a commodity – as something simply to make money off of. Perhaps, the robotic voice was a way to convey those who do exploit the arts and entertainment for their own greed….but ultimately King of Comedy just doesn’t hold the listener’s interest for very long.

Grade: C

I Don’t Sleep, I Dream

I Don’t Sleep, I Dream sounds like a song from an erotic thriller. I can imagine some devonar psychopath, walking into a cafe. His words to her, the last line from the chorus: I’d settle for a cup of coffee, but you know what I really need.”

Ok, I’m sure that’s not the picture R.E.M. had in mind with I Sleep, I Dream, but one thing’s for certain…the speaker of the song wants to sleep with whoever it is he’s talking to. He(?) seems to want to find a connection – maybe not one that lasts for more than a night – but a connection nonetheless.

What about the music of I don’t Sleep, I Dream? It’s what I would call…supportive. It’s there to prop up the lyrics, the words of the speaker. The music does have a style…kind of a sexy style even….but it doesn’t beak too far out of its box. In I sleep, I dream, the music doesn’t need to do more than just contain the lyrics.

Grade: B+

Star 69

I….I guess this is a song about the old *69 service. How one could call the last number that called you – even if they hung up before you picked up. The concept seems a bit dated now, we can literally do the same thing by punching the screens of our smartphones, but the service was the beginning of the end of anonymously calling someone. No longer could you prank a stranger, nervously call and hang up your crush, or…burn down a warehouse and call your buddy about your crimes. So, the deeper meaning had to do with privacy….or rather the end thereof.

The instrumentation feels similar to What’s the Frequency Kenneth and Crush With Eyeliner….fast, rock and roll tempo with raging guitars and amps turned up!

Grade: B+

Strange Currencies

Maybe one could say Stranger Currencies is R.E.M.’s answer to a power ballad – as the tempo is slow and sweet, but the instrumentation is rock oriented.

Stranger Currencies is essentially a song trying to prove the speaker’s love and devotion to their significant other. Despite what the speaker does, what they will do, they wanted to….with a simple phrase (You will be mine), the speaker wanted their significant other that they’re in it forever.

It’s best not to rip Strange Currencies apart too much….just take it as it is. Play Strange Currencies to your significant other, or even your crush. Strange Currencies just melts your heart with its beautiful rhythms and heartfelt lyrics. Stranger Currencies was definitely the favorite song to slow dance to circa 1995.

Grade: A-

Tongue

Tongue, sung in a falsetto, shows us the thoughts of a woman while receiving oral sex. We see her pleasure for certain, but we also see shame, as well as disappointment when she fails to clmax.

Tongue is set at a slower tempo than any other song thus far on Monster. Tongue avoids rock instruments for the most part, and relies almost entirely on a piano and a backing organ. Only a few times during the song, do we hear any drums, or even an electric guitar. The results are something beautiful.

Grade: A

Bang and Blame

Bang and Blame was certainly the most successful song on Monster. With that said, Bang and Blame is one of the hardest songs to listen to. The lyrics tell us a tale from the point of someone in a domestically violent relationship.

The tones are soothing, at least in the first verse. The chorus, however, with its harsh notes and loud but slow instrumentation, reminds us that Bang and Blame is a violent song. While we return to the subsequent verses, we realize what we thought of as soothing tones take on a more melancholy form.

Bang and Blame has a false ending, with a few instrumental seconds following. These few notes, serve as a palate cleanser. They also serve to help us forget about what we just heard….and show us just how easy it is to ignore the stories of those that need help.

Grade: A

I Took Your Name

I Took Your Name might be a song about identity theft, or it might be a song about imposter syndrome….regardless….it’s an odd song for certian.

Firstly, the vocals are mixed into the background, with the dominant element being the electric guitars. Secondly, a great deal of the music – including guitar and vocal parts – are monotone in nature. Thirdly, the song has several lines that leave more questions than they answer. What was up with that line about NASA? What about that Iggy Pop reference? What’s the master tape?

Perhaps the chorus sheds some light on I Took Your Name. The line “Some Confusion” keeps getting repeated…that’s kind of how I feel about this song in general. I Took Your Name certainly leaves me with some confusion.

Grade: B

Let Me In

Just like I Took Your Name, the lead guitar dominates over every other sound…including the vocals. Unlike I Took Your name, the vocals are clear and easily understood. Back to that guitar – its at the forefront for a reason…the guitar was owned by Kurt Cobain. Let Me In presents a dirge for Cobain.

As Cobain’s death was in April of 1994, and Monster’s last notes were recorded in May of 1994, Let Me In was certainly a rush job. As a result, at times Let Me In sounds unpolished. That being said….this unpolished sound of Let Me In makes us feel the emotions and hurt by R.E.M. After all, Cobain and Stipe had quite a bond.

If you’re not paying attention, you might miss one of the best parts of the song…an organ part during the end of the song. This organ almost gives us a “heavenly” sound. Almost as a hint of the afterlife.

Grade: A

Circus Envy

The song, Circus Envy, might be the angriest tune ever written by R.E.M. Circus envy gives us a look through the eyes of a circus freak about his unrequited and mocked love (and later hated) for an acrobat. The song gets especially angry (and dark) in verse 3. We also find the album’s title inspiration:

If I were you I’d really run from me

I’d really, really wish that I were you

When I get loose I’ll climb a tree and drop a load on your head

This monster in me makes me retch

You messed it, messed it up

The lyrics are only part of what makes Circus Envy such a great song. The instrumentation and studio engineering are tightly wound…every note played by Mike Mills and Peter Buck sound perfect. Bill Berry’s drums are of the same precision you’d find in a swiss watch. Oh, and Circus Envy is so noisy, but in a very good way. Stipe’s vocals go through a distortion effect which makes him sound almost inhuman.

Back to the guitars….there are so…many – the song presents a heavy grunge sound. Let Me In served as a dirge to Cobain, but Circus Envy serves as a tribute to his legacy – as Circus Envy embodies the sounds and spirit of almost every Nirvana song.

Grade: A

You

The final track on Monster, You, could be interpreted in two different ways. One way could be as a tribute to River Phoenix. Stipe and Phoenix were close, and Phoenix’s death in 93 certainly impacted Stipe while writing the songs for Monster. This interpretation does explain the references to Hollywood and the film industry.

The second interpretation, and the one I like the most, has to do with a dirty, seedy lust. The lyrics scream sexily, in lines such as “Let me hold your syrup close to mine” and “You wipe my lips / You turn me on.” You (the song) makes you (the listener) want to take a shower after leaving….as you (the listener) feels covered in sweat and shame.

As far as instrumentation….the guitars sound like something out of an 90s stag film. Slow and sensuous guitars dominate, while the bass and the drums keep a slow tempo …much like the opening of a porno flick.

One last thing about You, of all the songs on Monster, You seems like the most likely to be written from Stipe’s point of view.

Grade: A

Thoughts as Monster turns 25

As Monster turns 25, and I gave the album a fresh listen – I notice something unusual. Every song on Monster gives a confessional. Almost every speaker on Monster is…in their own way a monster in themselves, or at least they talk about a monster. Some of the Monsters mind you are only Monster’s in their own eyes, some of the Monsters are true Monsters. Some of the Monsters are people with mental illness, and yet do horrible things (such as beating up anchormen).

So, as Monster turns 25, we must ask if the songs are worth listening to again. As Monster turns 25 – should we dig up our old copies (or at least stream the album on Spotify?). If you’re a hardcore R.E.M. fan, should you invest in the deluxe boxed set? Well…that last one is up to you, but as Monster turns 25, certainly listen to the album again. There’s a lot of depth and emotion in the songs. The guitars, although a departure from Automated for the People and Out of Time, truly show the skills of Peter Buck and should be lauded! All the songs get a high grade, save for King of Comedy (so feel free to skip that one).

In short, listen to Monster. Listen to What’s the Frequency Kenneth, Tongue, Bang and Blame, You, and all the rest. The sounds will treat your ears, and the lyrics will fill your heart with empathy, rage, desire, sadness, and love.

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