Monster, released in 1994, is the ninth studio album by American Alternative Rock band R.E.M.. A radical and intentional stylistic departure from the poppy Out of Time and the acoustic Automatic for the People, the album instead presents a loud, distorted sound rooted strongly in the then-ongoing grunge boom as well as the British Glam Rock boom twenty years prior. The end result is far unlike any album R.E.M. had released before or since (with the possible exception of 2008's Accelerate).
Tying in with its more mainstream-friendly sound, the album is a scathing critique on the nature of celebrity, with lead singer and lyricist Michael Stipe adopting a variety of characters based around different facets of the life of an international superstar. Notably, the track "Let Me In" is a rumination on the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, a friend of Stipe, earlier in the year; Stipe had previously attempted to convince Cobain to visit him in-person and collaborate as a means of breaking the Seattle singer out of the frame of mind that directly preceded his death, only for Cobain to cancel at the last minute. Regarding the album's sound, the music is intentionally rough and muddy, with loud, distorted mastering and Stipe's vocals buried in the mix (the latter being a technique previously used on R.E.M.'s earlier material).
The album was also supported by a lengthy world tour, the band's first since the Green tour in 1989. Bill Berry lobbied strongly for the tour to take place, having enjoyed the band's earlier tour and wanting to do it again now that enough time had passed for the band to recover from the previous experience; Berry was also the one who lobbied for the album's grungier sound, wanting the band to "rock." While the subsequent Monster tour went through relatively smoothly, the band briefly fell into a state of crisis when Berry suffered a brain aneurysm while on tour, only surviving thanks to it occurring within close vicinity to a well-known neurosurgeon in the area. Despite this, the band's memories of the tour are mostly positive, as clarified by Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck in a 2019 interview. A Concert Film from the tour, Road Movie, would be released in 1996. The band also wrote most of the material for their next album, 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, while on tour, and performances of three of these songs would indeed be featured in Road Movie; New Adventures would be their last album with Berry, who would retire the following year partly due to health concerns spurred on by the aneurysm.
Monster spawned five singles: "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", "Bang and Blame", "Strange Currencies", "Crush with Eyeliner", and "Tongue". The album is not to be confused with the KISS album of the same name.
- "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" (3:59)
- "Crush with Eyeliner" (4:39)
- "King of Comedy" (3:39)
- "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" (3:25)
- "Star 69" (3:07)
- "Strange Currencies" (3:51)
- "Tongue" (4:08)
- "Bang and Blame" (4:48)
- "I Took Your Name" (4:07)
- "Let Me In" (3:27)
- "Circus Envy" (4:14)
- "You" (4:52)
"She's a sad tomato, she's three miles of bad tropes":
- Album Title Drop: "Circus Envy""Make way for monster jealousy
The monster in me makes me retch."
- Alliterative Name: "Bang and Blame"
- Alternative Rock: This album explores the rougher side of the genre.
- Anti-Love Song:
- "Bang and Blame", about the narrator's abusive partner losing control of the relationship.
- Word of God states that "Strange Currencies" is about "when somebody actually thinks that, through words, theyre going to be able to convince somebody that they are their one and only."
- "You" evokes this trope by pairing seemingly romantic-sounding lyrics with Drone of Dread guitars and a minor-key melody.
- Arc Words: "Clown" and "cartoon" appear frequently throughout the album's lyrics.
- Audience Participation Song: "Let Me In" is an unusual example in that the band would often bring in members of the audience to join them in a huddle during live performances of the song, essentially letting them in.
- Blue and Orange Contrast: The album features orange as its primary Color Motif, but the color blue occasionally appears as a sort of trimming. The band name on the front cover and spine art is in blue lettering, the typeface on the back cover is blue, one page of the liner notes is mostly blue, and the disc label is a deep blue.
- Breather Episode: "Strange Currencies" and "Tongue", a pair of much more laid-back tracks closer in style to the slower songs on previous Scott Litt-produced albums, sandwiched within an album that is, for the most part, loud, energetic, and angry grunge.
- The Cameo: The eponymous lead character of the comic strip Migraine Boy appears throughout the liner notes; Greg Fiering, the comic's author, designed the album's cover art, disc label, and liner notes at the request of Stipe, who was a fan of the strip.
- Celebrity Elegy: "Let Me In" is one to both Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix, two friends of Stipe who died before they could hit 30 as a result of their inability to cope with their stardom (Cobain committed suicide, Phoenix died of an accidental drug overdose).
- Color Motif: Compared to the yellow that R.E.M. is normally known for, Monster revolves largely around orange (a shade of yellow, admittedly), featuring a predominantly orange front and back cover, an orange spine, orange-based liner note artwork, and an orange media tray on early CD copies (similarly to the yellow media tray for early CD copies of Automatic for the People).
- Concept Album: The album revolves around taking the mickey out of celebrity culture, particularly given how it killed two of Stipe's friends.
- Concert Film: Road Movie, capturing the 1995 world tour the band did to support this album.
- Darker and Edgier: Compared to previous works, Monster is much angrier and more cynical in tone.
- Drone of Dread: Done with the guitar parts in "Let Me In" and "You".
- Everything Is an Instrument: As revealed by Michael Stipe, "King of Comedy" features a toaster as part of the instrumental track.
- The Generation Gap: According to Michael Stipe, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" is about an older man desperately trying and failing to understand today's youth, ultimately giving up in frustration.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" ends with the line "I never understood, don't fuck with me." Despite such language being explicitly disallowed from airplay by the FCC (as influenced by Jacobellis v. Ohio), the line remained uncensored on American radio for years.
- Grief Song: "Let Me In" mourns the deaths of Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix, both of whom were personal friends of Michael Stipe.
- Hidden Track: A minor example; a short instrumental track can be heard at the end of "Bang and Blame", unrelated to both the main body of the song and "I Took Your Name".
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Once again, the band indulges in this trope with LP and cassette copies featuring a "C" side and a "D" side (as labeled on the back cover; the actual disc and tape labels use standard numbers).
- Indecipherable Lyrics: Damn near all of the album could qualify, thanks to Michael Stipe's vocals being heavily buried in the mix, which is otherwise occupied by loud, distorted guitars. This ends up providing an especially good effect on "Let Me In", where Stipe's muffled vocals compliment the idea of the lyrics being directed at, but never reaching, a suicidal Kurt Cobain.
- Intercourse with You: Many of the songs, particularly "Strange Currencies", "Tongue", and "Crush with Eyeliner". Michael Stipe once joked in an interview that "Tongue" in particular is about cunnilingus, and seriously admitted to its sexual overtones in a later interview.
- Irony: With Bill. The band were understandably burnt out by the long Green tour, and didn't perform for almost three years. Bill told the others that he wanted to be in a rock band that toured, and threatened to quit if their next record didn't have a tour. Then when they were touring for Monster, he collapsed onstage from a ruptured brain aneurysm. As luck would have it, the city where they were performing was home to a prominent Swedish neurosurgeon who saved Berry's life. And then he ended up quitting anyway after their next album.
- Large Ham: Fitting the album's loud and distorted sound, Michael Stipe spends several songs belting the lyrics out with gusto.
- Let's Duet: "Crush with Eyeliner" is a duet between Stipe (singing) and Thurston Moore (mostly speaking).
- Loudness War: The album's loud, distorted mastering and relatively low dynamic range (coming in at DR8, which while not overpoweringly compressed was much more squished than most of its contemporaries) was a stylistic choice that was quite rare for its time, being done to tie in with the intentionally rough, grunge-influenced sound. However, nowadays that kind of sound has become standard for popular music releases, to the point where the 2019 remaster and remix both feature even lower dynamic ranges (DR7 and DR6, respectively).
- Lyrical Cold Open: "King of Comedy" starts with Stipe taking in a breath to begin singing.
- Minimalistic Cover Art: The album art consists simply of an out-of-focus, color-modified close-up of a bear balloon Michael Stipe owned (the balloon was originally green), with the band name and album title crammed into the corners in stark logotypes, tying in with album designer Greg Fiering's penchant for minimalist, yet gritty artwork.
- Motor Mouth: While no "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", Stipe's delivery on "Star 69" is much faster and more rambling than on the rest of the album. It helps that his vocal line in the verses is overlaid with itself about three times, creating something of an artificial echo (but with barely any change in volume).
- Mythology Gag:
- "Strange Currencies" reprises the structure of "Everybody Hurts", though the harder sound and darker lyrics here give it a much more subversive edge.
- "Bang and Blame" repeats a lot of the same melodic beats as "Losing My Religion" from three years prior, and features similar Anti-Love Song themes. It additionally closes out with a brief instrumental unrelated to both the main body of the song and the following track, nodding back to the ending of "Shaking Through" off of the band's first album over a decade prior and "Camera" off of Reckoning exactly a decade prior.
- New Sound Album: A hard shift into a mix of grunge and Glam Rock, which would also influence the harder material on New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
- No Ending: "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" cuts off midway through the closing instrumental, without a proper fadeout or release, to intentionally jarring effect.
- The Not-Remix: The album received a new stereo mix by original producer Scott Litt in 2019 to commemorate its 25th anniversary, featuring (among other things) Michael Stipe's vocals brought higher up in the mix to make them more audible.
- Obsession Song: "You", although it's refracted through Word Salad Lyrics.
- Ordinary People's Music Video: The video for "Crush With Eyeliner" features Japanese fans impersonating the band members and miming to the song.
- Precision F-Strike: "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" gets an F-bomb out of Stipe at the very end of the song. It being buried in the mix to the point of near-inaudibility means that the song still gets to play uncensored on the radio to this day.
- Raster Vision: The disc label evokes this to an extent, being a blurry close-up of white noise on a CRT TV.
- Record Producer: Scott Litt and R.E.M., in their fifth and penultimate collaboration together.
- Retraux: Stipe's vocals are purposefully mixed low in the mix, like he was on R.E.M.'s early work. Unlike that early work, they are mostly drowned out by extremely loud, distorted guitar.
- "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" quotes a prompt from Brian Eno & Peter Schmidt's "Oblique Strategies" cards that was featured in Richard Linklater's 1990 film Slacker, though with the quote attributed to Linklater rather than to Eno or Schmidt."Richard said, 'withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.'"
- "King of Comedy" appears to be named after the film of the same name, and like the film acts as a critique of celebrity worship.
- "King of Comedy" also features the lines "Make it charged with controversy/I'm straight, I'm queer, I'm bi," alluding to the lines "am I straight or gay? — controversy" in Prince's 1981 song "Controversy".
- "Star 69" features the line "doorbell rings, it's the FBI, we learned Spy vs. Spy."
- "I Took Your Name" namedrops Iggy Pop, who was a considerable influence on R.E.M.'s sound.
- "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" quotes a prompt from Brian Eno & Peter Schmidt's "Oblique Strategies" cards that was featured in Richard Linklater's 1990 film Slacker, though with the quote attributed to Linklater rather than to Eno or Schmidt.
- Survivor Guilt: "Let Me In" can be interpreted as this, with Word of God confirming that it was representative of Stipe's mental state after the suicide of Kurt Cobain during the album's production. Stipe had previously attempted to get Cobain to collaborate with him as a means of breaking him out of the heroin addiction that ultimately contributed to his suicide, and the fact that these plans fell through and were followed up by Cobain's death left Stipe wracked with guilt at his inability to aid his friend in time.
- Take That!:
- The entire album is one to mainstream celebrity culture.
- The "I'm straight, I'm queer, I'm bi" series of lines in "King of Comedy" act as a critique of the rampant speculation about Stipe's sexuality at the time of the song's writing; he would come out as an "equal-opportunity lech" during the album's promotion, later describing himself as "queer."
- Telephone Song: "Star 69" details dialing *-69 to call back and get revenge on prank callers, pretending to be police officers, FBI agents, etc. to freak them out.
- The Unintelligible: Stipe, thanks to the album's intentionally muddy mixing.
- Whole-Plot Reference: In a 2019 interview, Michael Stipe stated that "Circus Envy" was based on The Elephant Man (which also informed the Chronic Town track "Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)").