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), and as a result it stood as one of their most controversial albums among fans, with many thoroughly convinced upon its release that the Georgia quartet had sold out (well, out of those who didn't think they'd sold out by signing to Warner Bros. to begin with). Despite this, it was well-received by critics, was a massive commercial success (topping the charts in the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland), and eventually became Vindicated by History among most fans following the band's split in 2011. That said, it is also somewhat infamous for its ludicrously high resell rate, often being described as the most famous resold album ever released and being a common sight in bargain bins and thrift stores even today, sometimes to a ridiculous extent.
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. The band also wrote most of the material for their next album, 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, while on tour; it would be their last 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.
- 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.
- Bald of Awesome: Michael Stipe adopted his current chrome-domed look during the era for this album; in a 2019 interview, he amusingly recounted having to ditch the earrings he used to wear once he shaved his head, so as to avoid comparisons to American cleaning product mascot Mr. Clean.
- Bi the Way: "King of Comedy" alludes to this with the line "I'm straight, I'm queer, I'm bi." At the time, media speculation about Michael Stipe's sexuality was at an all-time high, something Stipe took offense to; the line addresses this speculation by sarcastically indulging in this trope (for what it's worth, Stipe has gone on record stating that he's had sexual relationships with both men and women, but never clarified anything beyond that).
- 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.
- Celebrity Elegy/Grief Song: "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 a 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.
- 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".
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", where the album's combination of heavy guitar distortion and Michael's vocals being somewhat buried in the mix and difficult to decipher has resulted in people not noticing the final line is "I never understood, don't fuck with me, aaah-haaaa".
- 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.
- Large Ham: Stipe manages to be one throughout the album despite barely being audible.
- Loudness War: The album's loud, distorted mastering 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.
- 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.
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: The album peaks at 6 on this scale.
- 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.
- Mythology Gag: "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.
- New Sound Album/Out-of-Genre Experience: Very much so. The band's sound has never been grungier than on this particular album.
- 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 to commemorate its 25th anniversary; the remix is fairly contentious among fans for stripping away a good chunk of the original mix's instrumentation and making Stipe's vocals clearer, which came at the expense of the stylistic effect meant to be evoked by its muddier sound in the 1994 mix (most prominently on "Let Me In"). While fans have conceded that the 2019 mix is meant to "de-90's" the album in the vein of David Bowie's Never Let Me Down 2018, whether or not it was effective— or even necessary, for that matter— is a subject of debate.
- Obsession Song: "You", although it's refracted through Word Salad Lyrics.
- 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., their fifth 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.
"Richard said, 'withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.'"
- "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" quotes Richard Linklater. Specifically, it quotes a prompt from Brian Eno & Peter Schmidt's "Oblique Strategies" cards that was featured in Linklater's 1990 film Slacker.
- "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.
- 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.
- The Unintelligible: Stipe, thanks to the album's intentionally muddy mixing.