After the somehow pastoral textures of “Out Of Time” and “Automatic For The People” (with mandolins and orchestras taking center stage), nobody could have blamed the band if they wanted to rock out a little once more. And that is what they did on their 1994 release. Named “Monster”, it was a return to their basic sound, and one that elicited strong reactions both in the buying public and in critics. One thing is for sure: the album did leave no one indifferent.
Personally, I find the sound a little unimaginative, with the guitar always going “wahh, wahhhh, wahhhhh” and Michael’s voice left intentionally low on the mix and /or completely distorted (“I Took Your Name”). When the record kicks in (with the successful single “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”) I am momentarily thrilled, but I quickly become a bit bored until a couple of more subdued performances do roll in. These include the beautiful single “Strange Currencies” and the organ-pumped “Tongue”. The voice is crisp there, and it is easier to focus on the actual message.
Because the lyrics are quite interesting as “Monster” was the one time that Stipe admittedly wrote in different characters, all of them rock musicians or stars. By this point, the band had already sampled a degree of success that was simply beyond anybody’s belief. They had also sampled the lunacy and madness that goes with that, and they surely had had enough of yes-men and hangers-on. There is a very palpable sense of disgust that gives way to paranoia in songs like “Star 69”, whereas “King Of Comedy” deals with adulation in one of the most vitriolic ways I have ever seen. Well, the working title was actually “Yes, I Am Fucking With You”.
And just look at some lyrics snippets: “We all invent ourselves” (Crush With Eyeliner), “I don’t want to tell you how much I hate this” (Tongue) and “What I want to feel, I want to feel it now” (Strange Currencies). You might think that nit-picking is a bad idea, but in this case it is viable since the record has a true thematic uniformity, and the songs on the whole are like a single lyric that deals with fame and artists under every light
For example, there is a song written and recorded as a tribute to Kurt Cobain, “Let Me In”. Stipe and the legendary frontman of Nirvana were very good friends, and so was actor River Phoenix – he also died at the time of the recording sessions, and “Monster” was to be dedicated to him. Natalie Merchant also penned a composition about Phoenix, incidentally. It was included on her first disc, “Tigerlily”.
“Monster” was clearly a vehicle for live performances – it was even recorded live in the studio, and the band was to launch its first tour in more than half a decade to promote the record.
In hindsight, the shift was a little too abrupt even if it was completely justified from the point of view of what they wanted to do artistically. It is important to note that (on paper) “Automatic For The People” was going to be a rock record, not a disc dominated by ballads as it turned out to be. Maybe if that had materialized the return to their rockier roots would not have been so sudden and/or disconcerting to many. But that would also have meant that a record universally adored (“Automatic For The People”) would have not existed as we know it. I think the trade off is something we can all live with. And (in any case) “Monster” has its moments. “Strange Currencies”, “Let Me In” and “Crush With Eyeliner” certainly qualify. And the closing number, “You” is somehow hypnotic and it says in 3 minutes what was ultimately eluded all through the record: “I hate this fame game but by now I need it”. The band needed a record to tour after and to continue developing the relationship with their fans. To try and see where it could be taken after the monumental successes that had preceded it. “Monster” was that album. And if the records that followed showed an increasing disconnection with what the public wanted, it was maybe because the audience was already satisfied by that point, and what the band had to say was not that interesting to listen to any longer.