New Music Friday: R.E.M.’s “Monster” 25th Anniversary Box Set

Justin RemerAlbum Review, Music, ReviewsLeave a Comment

rem monster 25

rem monster 25The R.E.M. album Monster occupies an odd space in the band’s body of work. Released in 1994, at the peak of their fame, it is an album that had the greatest crossover success with listeners outside the R.E.M. hardcore. This was both a plus and a minus, as the album eventually became — infamously — a ubiquitous staple of used CD store bargain bins, for years to come. R.E.M. seemed to dismiss the album too, only including one song — the lead single, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” — on their 2003 1-disc and 2011 2-disc best-of compilations.

Knowing this, it might seem odd that today sees the release of a 5-CD/1-Blu-ray Disc deluxe box set reissue of Monster, but certain listeners (this reviewer included) were of the right age and the right inclination to take the album to heart and to never let it go. Many longtime R.E.M. fans found the album too slick and ironic in a way that distinctly time-stamped the record as a product of the ’90s, while many of those non-fans who bought the record discovered that, beyond the singles, Monster was decidedly more experimental and uneven than what they expected. For folks like me, Monster was, for better or worse, the soundtrack of our lives in ’94.

With its giant scope, the box set is designed to serve both the R.E.M. hardcore, who might have previously dismissed Monster, and the weirdos like me who dig R.E.M. okay (I’ve probably heard and enjoyed 5 or 6 of their 15 studio albums) but really enjoy this specific odd-duck album.

Disc 1 features a new remaster of the album that makes it sound more present and fleshed-out. Disc 2 features a selection of mostly instrumental studio demos that shows the band trying to find its way from the melancholy folk-rock jangle of the Out of Time and Automatic for the People albums to something that sounds more “rock.” Disc 3 is the most intriguing and odd to this listener: a new remix of the album by producer Scott Litt, in an attempt to “fix” some of what he perceived as his mistakes. Discs 4 and 5 consist of a concert — recorded June 3, 1995, in Chicago — capturing the band in the thrall of its first live tour in over five years.

Discs 2, 4, and 5 (as well as the Blu-ray, which was not offered for review) are skewed more toward hardcore fans, although a philistine like me can still appreciate them well enough. It’s interesting to hear the band in brainstorm mode on the demos disc, and they are in fine form on the live discs, but I doubt I will give them as many re-listens as the two versions of the Monster album itself.

Remixing and remastering old albums to milk more cash from the catalogue is an old trick by now, but usually the results aren’t wildly noticeable unless you do a concentrated listen of the old version and the new version back-to-back. R.E.M. has even offered the opportunity to A/B the new remaster and new Scott Litt remix on their website so you can see what the fuss is about.  But, while the difference between the new remaster and the old 1994 version might be more subtle — it definite sounds richer and better defined now — Litt’s full remix is often quite aggressive so that even casual listeners will spot differences easily.

“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?,” unsurprisingly, is probably the least different from its original version. Michael Stipe’s vocals are louder and some of the more gimmicky guitar overdubs are dialed down (this is an album seemingly constructed around the notion that too much tremolo is never enough). Because of the mildness of these “Kenneth” tweaks, they almost seem superfluous. Fortunately, most of Litt’s new mixing choices are far more interesting.

R.E.M.’s original ’80s sound was characterized by Michael Stipe’s vocals being lower than expected in the mix; this added an enigmatic element to his lyrics, with fans forced to first figure out what Stipe was saying before decoding what he meant. In Monster‘s 1994 version, Stipe’s voice had similarly retreated within the mix, possibly reflecting his reticence to address the issues of sexuality and fame that pervade the album’s lyrics.

In his 2019 remix, producer Litt consistently puts Stipe’s vocals front-and-center. This makes the emotion — or occasionally, the pointed lack of it — within the singer’s performances the driving force of the album now. This is especially noticeable on the mournful ballad “Strange Currencies,” an “Everybody Hurts” sound-alike that I prefer to the better-known hit, and the Kurt Cobain eulogy “Let Me In.” Where once Stipe’s voice was draped in the sheltering sound of Peter Buck’s harshly distorted guitar, now it soars out, angry and aching.

Litt dials up the guitars on a few of the more decidedly “rock” tracks, like the upbeat kiss-off of “Star 69” and the album’s most self-consciously grunge-y moment, “Circus Envy.”

For the most part, Litt’s new versions are satisfying alternates to the existing mixes. Only two re-dos — the new “Crush With Eyeliner,” which trades stylized distortion for a cleaner, duller sound, and an update to “The King of Comedy,” which amps up the recording’s experimental oddity to a cartoonish degree — could be characterized as misfires. (“The King of Comedy” is just an OK song to begin with, so this wackier redux might not be so offensive to most listeners.)

However, the two tracks which kick off the original album’s second side (remember tapes?) — the booty-call-gone-wrong torch song “Tongue” and the high-lonesome lament “Bang and Blame” — are absolutely must-hear revelations in their new versions.

On “Tongue,” the perfectly balanced studio polish is replaced by a rawer, live-sounding approach that places us in the room, as though Michael Stipe (or the character he is using for the song) is confessing to us personally. As a result, Stipe’s falsetto vocals feel like less of a put-on, further exposing the bruised sensitivity behind self-deprecatingly snarky lines like, “Ugly girls know their fate/ Anybody can get laid.”

Meanwhile, the loud-quiet-loud dynamics of “Bang and Blame” are goosed even further, playing up the emotional back-and-forth between the measured dissection of a relationship gone wrong in the verses with the more propulsive and reactive choruses. (As the back-up singers echo every one of Stipe’s “Bang!”s, one notices that all the vocalists are allowed to shine more prominently in the new mixes.) Halfway through the song, Litt pulls out Bill Berry’s drum kit totally, leaving only a shaker and hand drum for percussion. One can immediately hear why you would never do something as stark as this with a potential hit single (“Bang and Blame” was even bigger commercially than “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”), but the choice also gives a bigger charge to the listener when we bounce back bolder with the next huge-sounding chorus.

As much as I enjoyed listening to Monster again, both in the new richer-sounding remaster and the generally rawer Scott Litt remix, it undeniably has its problems. The first half attempts to be upbeat and fun, while coming off as too smartass and lightweight. The second half, on the other hand, is hobbled by distortion-heavy dirges that sound far too much alike. The five (!) songs which were put out as singles in ’94 and ’95 are appropriately the cream of the crop, with the new vocals-forward mix of “Let Me In” standing out as well.

As an unrepentant fan of this record, this generous box set is a no-brainer purchase recommendation from me. If you’ve been unimpressed with Monster in the past, or if you are hesitant to pony-up for a big box, this REM Monster 25 deluxe set is certainly worth a re-listen (or two or three) on the streaming service of your choice.

Monster: 25th Anniversary Edition is available now.
Album score:
Behave Andromeda Romano-Lax
Box set score:

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Justin RemerNew Music Friday: R.E.M.’s “Monster” 25th Anniversary Box Set