DULUTH — As we careen into the holiday-shopping season, we once again find ourselves beset on all sides by box sets. There's no escaping the relentless onslaught of expanded editions from famous bands, no respite from the remixes, no way to take out the outtakes. The only choice for any sensible music listener is to submit.
This is to say: Hey, look! R.E.M.'s reissued another one of their albums.
This time around, it's 1994's maligned “Monster,” an LP that was at once a big hit and a kind of death knell for the Georgia alt-rockers. It followed a string of massively successful records that had most recently produced the blockbuster “Automatic for the People,” and there was no reason to believe that, in short order, the band would weather serious health issues and the departure of founding member (and Duluth-born!) Bill Berry. Yet, eventually, “Monster” became cemented as the awkward step that led to the band's final original-lineup record, the superior “New Adventures in Hi-Fi.”
For years, people have moaned and groaned about “Monster” being the album that got away. The theory that has grown over time is that the record was mixed incorrectly, and that the group's intentions were lost in the fog of internal tensions and the end-of-an-era feeling that had descended upon the music world after the suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain in April 1994.
The 25th-anniversary “Monster” addresses these complaints head-on, with a top-to-bottom remix-slash-reimagining that presents the record in a whole new way. This remix is the key disc in the six-disc (one's a Blu-Ray) set. Also included is the original mix (remastered, natch), a disc of previously-unreleased demos (we'll get to this in a sec), and a live concert from the 1995 “Monster” tour on two discs.
The real question, then, is: does “Monster” reveal itself to be a masterpiece, once it's had a fresh mix done 25 years after the fact? Answer: no. Of course the answer's no, because the songs are still the songs, and those songs just aren't the strongest batch of tunes that R.E.M. had come up with in their career to that point. But the remix is, at times, shockingly different from the original release, and songs like “Crush With Eyeliner,” the Cobain tribute “Let Me In” and “King of Comedy” are presented in new ways. Sometimes, in the case of lead single, “What's the Frequency, Kenneth?,” the remix fails by removing key elements — here, it's the tremolo-guitar overdubs in the song's chorus. At other times, the remix prevails because it allows Michael Stipe's vocals to climb out of the mud and be heard in a whole new way. Good or bad, it's a huge alteration.
The demo disc is befuddling, as it's made up of pretty polished, studio-tracked musical ideas that ended up not even being used for the final record. It presents the band in their more-traditional jangly-guitar mode, and it seems as if the grunged-up “Monster” was the result of a hard left turn somewhere down the road. Curious stuff, and it almost makes one wonder if “Monster” was a bit of a knee-jerk creation, of sorts.
The double-live album is a great snapshot of R.E.M. at their peak, before it all started to slide and Berry went back to his farm for good. The sound isn't great, but it's raw and dirty, and that's just fine. It's also neat to hear them trying out a few tracks that would later end up on “New Adventures,” and to hear just how loudly teenaged girls used to scream for a band of nerds from Athens.
As is usually the case with these things, this collection will thrill big fans. The remix is quite interesting even when it fails, yet it doesn't demonstrate that “Monster” was a hidden-classic R.E.M. album. As a window into a huge band's creative process, though, it's a great fly-on-the-wall document.
Tony Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Album: “Monster (25th Anniversary Edition)”
Produced by: Scott Litt
Personnel: Michael Stipe (vocals), Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass, keyboards, vocals), Bill Berry (drums).