The late 80s and early 90s had seen U2 get big. Too big. They seemed to have reached critical mass with the live / studio hybrid Rattle and Hum, but a creative reset on 1991’s Achtung Baby had seen them find a touch more equilibrium and sound considerably less like a band who created a monster from their own hubris, and now that monster threatened to eat them alive. Things was, U2 had got so big that they were almost impossible for mere humans to empathise with, and music fans in search of the next big thing were looking for something a touch more grounded and less bombastic.
Enter an unassuming four piece from Athens, Georgia. R.E.M. had been around for almost as long as U2, quietly releasing a string of albums on the I.R.S. Records label, before signing a megabucks deal with Warner Bros. Records and starting to slowly but surely plot their way to world domination. 1988’s Green had seen them put a commercial sheen on the type of work that they had done in the years immediately prior to it, and 1991’s Out of Time had seen generous MTV coverage to songs which ranged from hymns to the emotionally isolated, to the uncharacteristic pure pop joy of “Shiny Happy People”. With 1992’s Automatic for the People, R.E.M. graduated to rock music’s super-league, its downbeat meditation on live, love and mortality at odds with the stadium bluster of U2, yet they were now the two biggest rock bands on the planet with the broadest appeal. True, the mopey grunge mob might have been more exciting and vital to the youth of the time, but R.E.M. tapped into a far more diverse fan base which ranged from the indie kid, the bedsit loaner, the car radio listening commuter, the pop savvy middle age folks, to the MTV generation who just so happened to be in thrall to Nirvana and their ilk. Automatic for the People was a monster hit album, yet R.E.M. didn’t tour to promote it, or its predecessor. Sure, there were one off gigs and media appearances, but by 1994 R.E.M. were in the weird position of being one of the world’s biggest bands, but never playing to the masses that adored them.
If you are so inclined, the desire to perform is not an easy one to ignore for too long, so while preparing material for 1994’s Monster, R.E.M. went out of their way to pen a number of tunes that would go down well in the stadiums that they could now fill. For those fans that had discovered R.E.M. via the downbeat and stately sounds of their last two albums, Monster must have come as a shock to the system, with its repeated use of snarly rock guitars and big choruses. Some despaired at this redirection of emphasis away from the sophisticated music which had seen them become a globally successful brand and towards something bigger, flashier and less cerebral, however R.E.M. quite rightly argued that playing the stately and sophisticated tunes that so many people adored wouldn’t translate so well into a live experience. They needed to pen a few rockers to get the crowd going, and on Monster they did just that, with the likes of “Crush With Eyeliner”, “Bang and Blame”, “Star 69” and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” allowing Peter Buck to hit the distortion peddles with no little enthusiasm.
That’s not to mean that Monster was an unthinking rock beast though, indeed, there were points where it could be as sophisticated and subtle as anything R.E.M. had recorded in the past, it’s just that they needed to have some more dynamic material on there that would translate well into live performance. It’s not that R.E.M. rocking out was anything new, as longer term fans that had revelled in the delights of albums like Document and even Green could attest, it’s just if your introduction to R.E.M. had been Out of Time or Automatic for the People and hadn’t explored their back catalogue, then Monster came as something of a surprise. Monster was R.E.M. allowing themselves to let their hair down and come as close as they ever would to being a rawk band, albeit one with a knowing wink and one eye on the sophisticated generation spanning lyrical brilliance that they had become so celebrated for.
Monster isn’t a bad album, it’s just not the album that most R.E.M. fans expected. This is the sound of Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe challenging their fans’ perceptions of what R.E.M. was and could be. Monster is the sound of R.E.M. having fun, and who are we to say that that is a bad thing?