Pick of the Geek – R.E.M. Monster
Pilloried on release – essentially for not being their previous album, 1992’s epochal Automatic for the People – Monster was often dismissed as a stadium band trying to catch the wave of grunge. Nowadays, that accusation sounds hilariously off-base. The musical trademarks of grunge – its metal influence, slow tempo and ragged, screaming vocals – are only hinted at on one track, Let Me In (aptly, a tribute by Michael Stipe to his friend Kurt Cobain). What you get in place is an album that sounds like no other, blowing up the post-punk and art-rock Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck bonded over as kids in Athens, Georgia to stadium size. In place of grunge’s heavy riffs, the album’s prevailing sound is Buck’s effects pedals turning chords and feedback alike into a robotic tremolo throb, or drowning Bill Berry’s infectious Motown beat in a morass of Stooges-like fuzz on Circus Envy. The determination to go bigger, faster and weirder resulted in a slew of terrific singles like Crush With Eyeliner and What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?, but there is subtlety galore for those prepared to look. I Don’t Sleep, I Dream makes good on the promise of its fantastic title, starting off with another Buck-Berry noise-off then somehow building a delicate, affecting song on top of it, and the soul-influenced Tongue is even better. That song sees Stipe sing in a wavering falsetto from the perspective of a shy teenage girl losing her virginity to a man who she knows doesn’t respect her. Eerie and wilfully uncomfortable as that is, it’s one of the few moments of human vulnerability on an album which otherwise sees his distorted, tinny vocals snapping out cryptic phrases about dominance, revenge, sadism, scandal and manipulation. Released into an American landscape equally fascinated by the birth of the internet and the beginning of investigations into Bill Clinton’s sex life, it’s amazing to think people didn’t appreciate that this was the record that best summed up its age.