R.E.M 25th Anniversary Edition of “Monster” Still Found Wanting

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R.E.M. Monster-25th Anniversary Edition (Craft)

Music: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars | Reissue: 3 stars

It’s a given: head to the R.E.M. section of any used CD shop and there it is; the eye-catching, Halloween-orange cover with the blurry illustration of –what is it?, a dog/cat/bear — R.E.M.’s 1994, Monster. They are usually at the closeout/clearance section, priced about a dollar. While the album sold multi-platinum at the time of its release, it has now been relegated to a rather ignominious place where no one wants a physical copy.

Sure, some of that is due to streaming, making the physical disc industry as dated as 8-track tapes. However few other titles in the R.E.M. catalog suffer a similar fate. Clearly anyone even marginally interested in owning Monster already has it, which poses a challenge for the deluxe 25th anniversary reissue at hand. Why would anybody in 2019 dig into their wallets to spring for a pricey (retail of over $60), 5 CD/1 Blu-ray “deluxe” version of an album that seems to have been on the scrapheap for the past decade or so?

The answer comes in the details of this somewhat monstrously – pun intended – expanded set.

Not only has the album been remastered, but more significantly it has been remixed and overhauled by original producer Scott Litt. He was, along with many listeners, frustrated with his first mix a quarter of a century ago. The expanded edition also includes two discs of a previously unreleased audio concert from the Chicago date of the Monster tour. Add 15 demos, the majority unheard before, most without singer Michael Stipe’s input, a DVD in 5.1 surround, along with high resolution audio, five videos and a previously released concert film Road Movie

The live 25-song audio concert is a solid performance, but the just above bootleg sound is compressed and tinny. The band plays only a few songs from their IRS days while reprising all but three Monster tunes. The hours worth of mostly instrumental demos, where a Stipe-less trio tests riffs and grooves without actual songs behind them, are pleasant but forgettable. That leaves the videos (easily accessed on the internet), the surround audio (reprised from 2005’s reissue) and most crucially, the album’s remix. Fans will be intrigued by the crisper sound of the latter where Stipe’s vocals and Peter Buck’s guitar – cranked up for the majority of the disc – are better defined. Some tunes like the soulful “Tongue” (where Stipe goes Prince-styled falsetto) are substantially rejiggered. 

Musically, Monster remains below top notch R.E.M.; Stipe’s lyrics are typically inscrutable but the group plays with muscle, determination, and intensity that makes even deeper cut ballads such as “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” and the band’s tribute to Kurt Cobain, “Let Me In” reverberate with a timelessness that makes Monster seem like it could have been recorded last week.

Thick-walleted mega-fans might splurge for the six-disc package, but others can suffice with the far less expensive double that includes the remaster and Litt’s remix. Either are preferable to “pre-enjoyed” copies you can nab for about a buck. 

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