On its release in September 1996, New Adventures in Hi-Fi felt like an event.
R.E.M. had just re-signed with Warner Bros. for a then staggering $80 million dollars, and had a legitimate claim to be the biggest band in the world. They’d released a five-minute single featuring Patti Smith, on which Michael Stipe recited poetry rather than sang. The cover of the record was monochrome, serious-looking – an empty landscape – a far cry from the cartoon bear and bright-orange cover of Monster. It was 14 songs and 65 minutes long. This was a clearly a Big Statement.
Album opener How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us, with its brooding, repetitive bassline and what I didn’t realise at the time was a jazz piano solo by Mike Mills (unaquainted as a 14-year-old with Thelonius Monk, it sounded to me like a cat walking across a keyboard), only confirmed it. Neither embracing and melodic like Out of Time or rocking and semi-ironic like Monster, this was, rather, Automatic for the People‘s older, more introspective brother.
Except, it’s not that. Not exactly, anyway. Because no sooner does How the West Was Won fade out than Michael Stipe launches into The Wake Up Bomb, in which – camper than ever before – he lists all the ways in which he looks good, like an alt.rock Richard Fairbrass, before expressing a desire to “Get drunk and sing along to Queen/Practice my T.Rex moves and make the scene”. It’s goofy, it’s silly, it’s a little embarassing, like your dad at a wedding disco, but it’s completely winning.
It’s also a radical hard-left turn from How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us, not just in mood but in sound as well. How the West Was Won sounds like a controlled studio recording. The Wake Up Bomb sounds like it was recorded in a hangar. In both cases, that’s because they more or less were. While touring with Radiohead in 1994, the members of R.E.M. noted how a soundcheck recording of the band playing My Iron Lung had become the basis of the final studio version, and wondered what it would sound like if they were to do the same. It put them in mind of Neil Young’s 1973 live album Time Fades Away, which consisted entirely of new material and kept audience noise to a minimum.
With those twin inspirations, they began recording their own new songs at soundcheck. The Wake Up Bomb was recorded at the North Charleston Coliseum, with touring musician Nathan December adding extra weight to the guitar attack. It’s a similar, but I think more successful, approach to the one they’d taken on Monster, for which basic tracks were cut on a soundstage then sweetened with overdubs.
Scott Litt’s mix had left that album a little too guitar-heavy, lacking drive and punch from Bill Berry’s drums. Correcting that mistake, New Adventures‘ louder songs, like The Wake Up Bomb, see Berry and Buck leading the charge together. Yes, Buck’s SG Junior* is huge, but he’s not burying everyone else with it; Berry’s toms have a lot of thump, and his pre-chorus snare flams are practically a hook by themselves.
The record continues in a similar vein, ping-ponging between the studio-recorded acoustic lament New Test Leper and the live-at-soundcheck Undertow, which was frequently played on the 1995 tour. New Test Leper is one of the album’s most successful pieces. A callback to the funereal, acoustic sound of Automatic, it features Stipe in character as a guest on a talk show, trying to communicate something serious and personal while facing down insults and hostility from the audience. I’ve always assumed Stipe had in mind the way people with Aids, particularly gay men, were treated, but I’ve not found anything online where he’s said as much. Even in 1995, though, society’s treatment of people with Aids was often one of fear and hostility, so it’s a reading that fits even if it’s not Stipe’s intended one. Either way, it’s a lovely song, with one of Stipe’s best vocals: gentle, semi-whispered, and a beautiful change of pace on a record where he’s often hoarse and grainy.
That long tour in support of Monster does represent something of a dividing line in Stipe’s career as a singer. A smoker and vocally untrained, he seems to have suffered during the 18-month tour, coming out the other side of it permanently raspier, and for me, never as a good again as he was in the early 1990s. Undertow is the sort of song that appears to have done the damage – he belts the chorus dangerously close to the top of his range and audibly struggles at times. It’s hard to hear the effort as worth it. It’s not a disaster (Mills is on good on bass), but it’s a long way from the quality of the opening triptych.
Things immediately pick up with E-Bow the Letter, though. Five and a half minutes long, with Stipe in Beat-poet mode, supported by Patti Smith’s low-register backing vocals in the choruses, it sounded unlike anything else on the radio at the time. It’s a triumph for all involved: Stipe’s lyrics are a continuation of Monster‘s explorations of gender indentity, sexuality and pop culture, while Mills and Buck are at their most resourceful as instrumentalists; Buck plays the titular E-Bow throughout, also adding acoustic guitar and electric sitar (the chorus riff is played on both instruments), while Mills handles Moog synth, organ and Mellotron (the string parts that get a little more audible with each chorus) as well as his usual bass. But familiarity with it can obscure the memory of how weird it sounded at the time, and it’s a sign of the band’s clout that Warners agreed to release it as the opening single. The chart positions don’t tell the whole story; in the UK it hit number four, but failed to find support on radio, and dropped like a stone, out of the Top 40 in three weeks.
This, though, more than any other album R.E.M. had released to date was the sound of the band doing whatever the hell they wanted, recoupable advances from Warner’s be damned. Little else explains Leave, perhaps the most sonically extreme record they’d made to date. Its minute-long acoustic instrumental opening gives way to a blaring siren effect (played on a synth, I think), a thunderous drum track from Bill Berry, and the opening acoustic melody recast for Buck’s E-Bow guitar. Stipe meanwhile is in self-flagellating mood (“I suffer dreams of a world gone mad/I like it like that, and I know it”), his desperation mirrored by that brutally unyielding siren, which plays without relief for six minutes until the end of the song. Even more than E-Bow the Letter, it’s the album’s haunted centrepiece, and it’s a final triumph for Bill Berry as a creator within the band. When he left, they didn’t just lose a drummer but also the man who’d written the music for Perfect Circle, Everybody Hurts and Man on the Moon.
The band presumably knew that the mood needed lightening after Leave, so they follow it with the driving Departure. It’s another Beat poetry-style vocal from Stipe, but this time over a heavily distorted Peter Buck riff with a tone that sounds oddly like Mark Knopfler on Money for Nothing. The band attack it audible enthusiasm and Stipe is at his most animated. He’s mainly mining a seam of word association (“Win a eulogy from William Greider/Car crash, ptomaine, disposable lighter/A bus plunge, avalanche, a vinegar cider/Free-fall, motorcycle, hang-glider”), but he ends the song on a note of (perhaps) personal revelation, repeating the line “There is so much that I can’t do”. But in context it’s not a self-reproach; it sounds more like a moment of liberation. It’s not a song I tend to revisit out of the context of the album, but whenever I do hear it, it makes me smile.
Bittersweet Me, the second single from the album, feels like a missed opportunity to me. The promising verse and pre-chorus are let down by a chorus that’s just a little too static and lacking in development. The criticism R.E.M. have come in for in some quarters that their songs lack proper choruses is overstated on the whole. But there are a couple of examples of R.E.M. songs where the chorus fails to pay off the verse in a way that lifts the song, and Bittersweet Me is one of them (the other one I would put forward is Bang and Blame, which has an absolutely belting verse). The mix, too, feels slightly off. When the disorted guitars come in (firstly on the left during the pre-chorus, then a more obviously overdubbed part in the middle for the chorus), they seem to sit on top of the track, rather than feeling like they’ve been integrated into the mix. It’s a shame, as the song could have been a great one with a stronger chorus and better mix.
Be Mine is a ballad, and in a different world could perhaps have been a hit. In some ways, it’s a warm-up for Up‘s At My Most Beautiful, which applies similarly idiosyncratic but sincere-sounding lyrics to classic ballad form. But while At My Most Beautiful is a very well-observed and executed Beach Boys pastiche, Be Mine is more like a power ballad played by a band that are a little too self-conscious to go for the sonic jugular. It’s structured like a power ballad – opening verses and chorus accompanied by solo guitar, band coming in element at a time until they all hit together for the second chorus – but the payoffs aren’t quite big enough to really satisfy. The drum sound is suprisingly small and contained, and the solo, such as it is, isn’t expansive enough. I tend to think if you’re going to underplay a song like this, underplay it more. Just keep it to acoustic guitar and voice. Otherwise, go for broke. There’s a good song here, but it’s not quite the record it might have been.
Ten songs in, the length of New Adventures in Hi-Fi starts to become a little bit of a problem. Binky the Doormat – another song played during the 1995 tour and captured on Road Movie – revisits the trash-glam gender games of Monster and The Wake-Up Bomb, but without the same panache. Mike Mills’s “go away, go away” backing vocals, which I’ll charitably describe as deliberately whiny and annoying, tend to grate, and at this point in a 65-minute, 14-song album we didn’t really need a 5-minute track of only average quality retreading stylistic and lyrical ground covered elsewhere.
What we did need is something like Zither to refresh the ears: a two-and-a-half-minute acoustic instrumental recorded backstage in Philadelphia, featuring Scott McCaughey on autoharp (sometimes known as a chord zither, hence the track name). R.E.M. were always rather good at instrumentals, and this is another nice one, slighter than Endgame or New Orleans Instrumental No. 1, perhaps, but still very welcome in context.
So Fast So Numb seems to me a bit of an overlooked gem. Taken at a brisk tempo, the music is matched by a forceful performance from Stipe. As Matthew Perpetua noted in his long-ago survey of R.E.M. songs, Pop Songs 08, much of the album sees Stipe (or, rather, whatever persona he happens to be adopting for the song) reaching out in his lyrics to people in need of some “confrontational tough love” (to borrow Perpetua’s phrase). The singer’s barely contained frustration is evident in his impatient interjections (“Listen! This is now, this is here, this is me, this is what I wanted you to see”), and his cleverly rapid-fire delivery in the choruses (“you’re coming on to something so fast, so numb that you can’t even feel”).
Musically, it’s one of the most expansive tracks on the record, made up of four distinct sections: verse in D, pre-chorus in F, chorus in E minor, and a solo that’s also in F but finds its way back to D by moving up through a B flat that isn’t elsewhere present in the song. Berry is in authoritative mood on drums, and perhaps the only negative comment I might make is that if it had been recorded a couple of years later, the distorted guitar might have been deemed unnecessary. Underneath the fuzz is a rootstier instrumental bed of acoustic guitar and piano, which was perhaps all that was needed. Still, a really good piece that buoys the second half of the album.
In comparison, Low Desert feels minor. There are several things I like about it musically. Stipe takes a similar approach to the vocal as he does on How the West Was Won, singing much of it in a soft mumble then occasionally jumping up an octave to ramp up the intensity. I like the drum sound, Berry making the unusual choice of playing what’s essentially a rock song with Hot Rods. That distinctive slappy sound was so much a part of post-MTV Unplugged music, but is seldom heard today. And, speaking of things that are slappy, the track is another one of Mills’s occasional forays into slap-bass, which always seem to work better than they should, given that R.E. M. were very far from a funk band. The track, with its talk of driving through the desert, builds on the imagery of the cover and ties back into the album’s main themes: movement, travel, departure. But if we’re looking to cut some songs from the tracklisting to reduce New Adventures’ unruly length, this would be another casualty, though I’d miss it more than Binky and Undertow.
An album about movement ends with a song firmly located in one place: Los Angeles, where Stipe lived for a couple of years in the mid-nineties. Based on a piano line written by Mike Mills, the song is a paean to the city: its geography, its history and its icononography. Famously guarded in his younger years, Stipe has over time become willing to discuss his once-opaque lyrics, and he’s spoken quite extensively about Electrolite, and his initial inspiration: a trip he took up to Mulholland after his home was damaged in the 1994 Northbridge earthquake:
“Mulholland represents to me the iconic ‘from on high’ vantage point looking down at L.A. and the valley at night when the lights are all sparkling and the city looks, like it does from a plane, like a blanket of fine lights all shimmering and solid.”
The song is, of course, a farewell to the 20th century, albeit one written several years ahead of time, though it feels, too, like a farewell to the band itself, ending as it does on the repeated line “I’m not scared/I’m outta here”. And if Buck, Mills and Stipe had decided not to soldier on without Bill Berry after he left the band, it would have been the perfect note to go out on, as it is one of their warmest and most generous songs, and among their finest – certainly from the Warners period.
Musically, it’s about as countrified as the band ever got. Banjo had figured in the band’s arrangements occasionally (as had pedal steel), but there’s little precedent in R.E.M.’s oeuvre for anything quite as stone country as Andy Carlson’s fiddle on Electrolite, unless I’m forgetting something. After a record dominated by thick walls of distorted guitar, it’s a nice note to go out on – the instrumental bridge may be the most purely pretty 30-second stretch on the whole album. While reconnecting the band with the sounds and textures of their early nineties records, it sounds like the end of an era.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi isn’t quite the masterpiece it seemed to me at the time. Its length, which once made it seem important, now merely seems long, and I can’t help thinking a 50-minute version of the record would have been better. But it does contain everything the band could do sonically and stylistically, across a set of mostly strong songs performed with a dynamism the band hadn’t exhibited on record since the days of Lifes Rich Pageant and Document (even the muscular likes of These Days and The One I Love sound fairly puny next to The Wake-Up Bomb and Leave). But that arena-ready sound is leavened by softer, more pensive or atmospheric moments like New Test Leper, E-Bow The Letter, How the West Was Won and Electrolite. I rate it, in case you weren’t able to tell, highly.
Since I always end up doing this with long records, here’s how I’d edit it to make it slightly more streamlined**:
- How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us
- The Wake-Up Bomb
- New Test Leper
- E-Bow The Letter
- Bittersweet Me
- Be Mine
- So Fast So Numb
* It may have been a Les Paul, but Buck uses an SG Junior in the Road Movie performance of the song.
**I’d also edit out some of the repeated choruses on tracks including New Test Leper, Bittersweet Me and So Fast So Numb, as well as trim the acoustic intro off Leave, since that doesn’t really work as a fakeout and isn’t needed as a scene-setter.