I recently spent a Sunday afternoon the way I have spent most of my Sunday afternoons since moving to New York five years ago: I went record shopping. I exclusively spend my time in used record shops; one of the perks of working at a music magazine is that new music is constantly at your fingertips. Of course, the flipside is that most of the new music at said fingertips is pretty god-awful, which is why I am constantly driven into used stores on my weekends. It’s a vicious cycle. Last weekend’s excursion yielded some pretty sweet fruit. I picked up a copy of Tanya Donnelly’s deeply under-appreciated first solo album Love Songs for Underdogs to replace the copy that was stolen from me by an ex-girlfriend. I also nabbed Return to Olympus by Malfunkshun, notable for being the first band fronted by Andrew Wood, who would later front Mother Love Bone, which was the band that was the stepping-stone for Pearl Jam. Malfunkshun are also famous for having one of the most ridiculous band names of all time.
The other album I bought last weekend is a record that I’m pretty sure I’ve bought for the ninetieth time since it’s release in 1994, and it appears to be a ubiquitous staple in used CD racks. I’m speaking, of course, of R.E.M.’s Monster. So I got to thinking: Why has Monster been recycled seemingly by everybody who ever bought it? Admittedly, it’s not the strongest R.E.M. album, has almost no relation (at least sonically) to anything else in their catalogue, and even for a band that prides itself on lyrical obtuseness, the lyrics are pretty out there (when they’re intelligible at all). That being said, Monster has some of the best moments in R.E.M.’s storied history. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is not only one of the finest singles the band has ever produced; it’s also one of the best songs of the ’90s (and I sometimes suspect it’s one of the 20 best songs ever written by an American band). “Tongue” is a wonderfully fluid, sweaty ballad crooned by Michael Stipe in a falsetto that would make Prince think about suing for copyright infringement.
I think Monster‘s ubiquity in used bins is because the album was a victim of expectation. R.E.M.’s prior album was Automatic for the People, one of the best-loved albums of the 1990s. Anticipation for Monster was pretty high; for a lot of people, Automatic for the People might as well have been the band’s debut. That anticipation, combined with the surge of the lead single “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” pointed to a strong showing, and the album initially sold well. But once people got past the lead single, they realized they were dealing with a very different band. There were no plain, doe-eyed ballads like “Everybody Hurts” or “Nightswimming.” The folksy charm of Automatic had been replaced by an affected irony. This was still the same band, but they were existing in an entirely different idiom. Ironically, Monster ended up being the last relevant R.E.M. album. The follow-up, the road album New Adventures in Hi-Fi, happens to be my favorite R.E.M. album, but I am the president of a club of exactly one who think the same. Then Bill Berry left and the band decided to settle into their current oeuvre of songs to sooth you to sleep.
Both Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi both deserve second chances (thought the latter is a rarer find in used stores if only because fewer people bout it initially). Though Monster will never be as important as an album like Automatic for the People because it doesn’t sound as timeless, albums like Monster are more interesting because they more accurately represent a time and a place, both for the band and the people consuming it. You can’t listen to Automatic for the People and get a sense of what 1992 was like (if anything, the sound of it is the exact opposite of what was actually happening in music), but Monster might as well have been titled , because Michael Stipe and Co. managed to capture the sense of what the rock landscape was looking like: Kurt was dead, music was rudderless, and all anybody wanted to do was plug in their guitars and just bang around for a while. Automatic for the People will always sound better, but I hope that the people combing through the ruins of our civilization find Monster.