R.E.M.’s Monster just got reissued in a fancy, expanded anniversary edition — its been 25 years, shockingly, since it was released, which floors me; it came out on the same day I moved to Aberdeen for the start of my second year of art school, and I remember running to the local store to buy a copy before the 4-hour drive there in case I somehow missed it — and, although I checked out the new mix and the demos on Spotify (They’re fine), the thing that I keep thinking about more than anything is the packaging design of the album.
Everyone knows what the cover looks like, that garish orange and the out of focus bear head. The album, famously, is the most-returned CD in history, so it’s a familiar sight to any music fan of the last quarter century. The front cover is okay, it does the job, but it’s easily the most boring visual element of the album. It does the entire package a massive disservice.
Far more than the music — which I really like, to this day — the design on Monster blew my mind. (Perhaps more so, the design of the tour booklet that accompanied the album, which took the basic ideas and ran with them.) There was a bluntness and garishness to the decisions made, whether it was cutting things off in the wrong place or applying color overlays that made no sense, or considering television static as a design element strong enough to carry a booklet page by itself. Beyond that familiar orange cover, everything seemed to purposefully reject received design wisdom and do the “wrong” thing, yet still look attractive and exciting.
For someone in art school, especially someone starting a graphic design course, it was utterly exhilarating. I tried to learn from it by stealing, of course — I did the same thing for my other primary influence at the time, Dave McKean, which is funny to me now that I can recognize how much of McKean’s tricks were also just outright stolen from others — but was beaten back by teachers who told me that I was, simply, doing it wrong.
I was, of course, but not in the way they thought. They didn’t get the aesthetics I was working with, and so argued for the old school as they had to, because it’s what they knew. But what I was actually doing wrong was copying the Monster look instead of applying the attitude. Copying it wasn’t the right thing to do; I should have rejected it and built my own version, using the pop culture influences and mistakes inside my own head. But who is confident enough to do that at such a young age?