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Wednesday 23 March 2022

Now Fool Might Be My Middle Name

I acquired a digital copy of the 2019 remix album of R.E.M.'s Monster recently and have been playing it a lot. Monster was always an odd album for me. It came out in September 1994, the band having had two enormous records (Out Of Time and Automatic For The People) neither of which they'd played live- they hadn't been on the road since 1989's Green tour. Prior to meeting to record Monster Bill Berry said he wanted to tour and wanted an album that rocked. Green, Out Of Time and Automatic For The People had all been at least partly played on acoustic guitars and mandolins with accordions and organs, slower paced songs (I need to come back to Out Of Time at some point soon). 

Monster was a curious mixture of slinky sexed up glam rock (Crush With Eyeliner, Circus Envy), some fairly straight ahead alternative rock songs ( What's The Frequency, Kenneth?, Bang And Blame) and some murky, feedback ridden laments (Let Me In, You) and a batch of album songs with lots of electric guitars (I Don't Sleep I Dream, Star 69, King Of Comedy). The sequencing seemed curious, frontloading the record with the two biggest hitters and the second half of side two a long drawn out affair. Michael Stipe's lyrics were unbalanced too- songs in character about being famous, songs about about identity and sexuality, an ode to Kurt Cobain and some songs about love gone wrong. For every song with catchy, sharp one liners like Crush With Eyeliner there's another one about self disgust like Tongue. It all seems a bit all over the place. Maybe becoming the biggest band in the world (give or take) without even touring does that to a group. Additionally, the peaks aren't as peaky as on previous albums (Out Of Time has at least five genuine R.E.M. classics, certainly from their major label years- Half A World Away, Country Feedback, Leave, Belong, Me In Honey) and Automatic For The People (which almost doesn't have a weak spot but especially the closing trio of Man On The Moon, Nightswimming and Find The River). If the peaks on Monster aren't as high, the lows are flattened out too- no billion sellers that you really don't ever need to hear again (Losing My Religion, Shiny Happy People, Everybody Hurts), no novelties. Monster just seemed a bit flatter all round, a seven out of ten record. At the time, 1994, I was drifting away from them and indie rock anyway so maybe I didn't give it the time it needed. I loved Crush With Eyeliner, liked some of the rest and some of it didn't really register at all.  

But, and here's the funny thing, listening to the remix has been a revelation. Scott Litt, producer of the original album, had always felt the album needed revisiting and the 25th anniversary of its release gave him the excuse. He'd long felt the songs were often muddied by the production and that the layers of guitars and feedback that covered the songs needed stripping away and that Stipe's vocals were too often buried as well. Litt stripped away a lot of the murk, took off some of the multi- tracked guitars and pushed Michael's vocals to the fore (and in some cases used a different vocal, such as on Strange Currencies). It should be said, none of the band felt this needed doing. Stipe said Monster was an exact record of 'who we were at that moment in time'. The newer version of Monster has made me hear it anew, the songs revealing themselves in a way they didn't at the time. It sounds like four people playing together, a more balanced album. On some of the songs, it feels like Peter Buck has played the main guitar part, added one overdub and then everyone was happy with it and they left it at that, no need to go back and add more. A lot of the words are much more audible too and Stipe's lyrics on these songs are a world away from the early years but also from the more narrative approach he'd adopted on Out Of Time and the sombre meditations on death and mortality on Automatic. 

I could have posted almost any of the remixed songs, they've all made an impression on me over the last couple of weeks, some of them returning into my world after a long absence and some seeming almost new. 

Strange Currencies (2019 remix)


The Swede said...

Aside from refreshing my memory of the album during TheRobster's series, Monster isn't one I'd returned to a great deal over the years to be honest, but I like the sound of your review and the 2019 Strange Currencies is really strong.

Martin said...

Hmm. That remix of Strange Currencies sounds like it would fit in well on Life's Rich Pageant.

I hadn't felt the need to invest in the remaster, but now I do!

TheRobster said...

I still stand by Monster as being one of the band's best of the Warner years. I listen to it far more than OOT and AFTP. I honestly think it has aged better than those two multi-platinum 'monsters'.

The remix album works really well in places, not so much in others, but the Strange Currencies remix is a peak. It's just gorgeous.

JC said...

Monster is a really good album....much maligned by those who expected and wanted another Automatic.

The remix album is superb. It feels like discovering an album that had been strangely and wrongly locked up in the vaults and forgotten about for years.

Swiss Adam said...

It's really is a remix album that nobody was really asking for but which is really worth the time spent on it.