On Second Thought
R.E.M. - New Adventures in Hi-Fi

for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

What on Earth happened to R.E.M? If you’ve ever had more than a passing interest in Georgia’s golden boys, you’ve probably found yourself asking this question at some point in the band’s 21-year recording history.

Some fans (the ones who take any opportunity to remind you that they were there before you) will curtail the question with one or more of the following: “…they’re so commercial now… …the R.E.M. I listened to would never have bothered with world tours… …yeah, man I preferred them when you couldn’t hear what he was singing…”. Those of us more interested in music than petty snobbery and one-upmanship will have long tired of such talk, but that doesn’t mean we found an easy answer to the question.

So what did happen to R.E.M.? Well, by 1987’s Document, the lyrics were all audible. Chances are this was largely owing to the high-quality production equipment available to artists with a few successful albums behind them, as well as development in the quality of Stipe’s words. 1988 saw the band release Green, their first record under a new deal with major-player Warner Bros., and yes—R.E.M. headed on a more commercial route. It’s sometimes difficult to decipher what the Philistine contingent of their fanbase disliked about this era. Did the tunes deteriorate? Did the lyrics become trite, unlistenable? Did they become—I don’t know—the equivalent of someone babbling something about “conversation fear” amidst a sea of pretension and incoherence?

The real problem, I suspect, was that R.E.M. weren’t a band owned by a small but dedicated following anymore. Over the following two albums (1991’s Out Of Time and 1992’s Automatic For The People), the entire world became R.E.M.’s biggest fans. It seems ridiculous to begrudge your favourite band the success they obviously deserve out of pure elitist selfishness, doesn’t it? Drummer Bill Berry seemed to think the “original” fans had a point though, and partway through the recording of Automatic…, issued his bandmates an ultimatum: “Look, guys, if the next record doesn’t rock, I’m just quitting the band.”

And so Monster, R.E.M.’s “public mistake”, was born. While the old-school fans probably whinged about faking their way back into rock, and the newer fans were dismayed by the hard-edge form the album took, the band were undeterred. And here the trail goes cold: many abandoned any hope of R.E.M. returning to their former glories (whenever they took place), and tragically, these folks lost out.

R.E.M. toured Monster, and during soundchecks, rehearsals and even onstage, perfected the raw feel they’d first attempted in a set of new songs, which were to become 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi. The sound of a band no longer making music their fans urged them to make, the record more than lives up to its title. One way of approaching the album, mentioned in passing in another review, was to divide the record up into four “sides”, each named after the side’s opening song. It was argued each “side” would reflect a different mood, and at 65 and a half minutes (extremely long by R.E.M.’s standards), the approach seems to make a degree of sense. And a lengthy album requires lengthy analysis…

Side One: How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us

Or How Michael Stipe Has A Tendancy To Whinge About His Fame, His Career and His Country. And Where It Got Him. Spinning out disjointed half-anecdotes (I didn’t wear glasses ‘cos I thought it might rain/Now I can’t see anything”) on the title track, R.E.M. open slow and steady—but their sound is distinctly determined.

As if attempting to confirm the suspicions—that R.E.M. are back and in control, this time knowing all that they wish to achieve and the methods by which they should accomplish them—the band barely takes breath to launch into “The Wake Up Bomb”. Pouting, and doing that delightfully flamboyant dance he’s been doing since he saw Morrissey perform with The Smiths in London, Stipe is back on form. A palpable ecstasy is reached—Buck’s fuzzed up guitar, Mills’ high-pitched harmonies, Stipe exchanging indie-pop for glam-rock and practising his T. Rex moves accordingly.

This side’s closer changes tack once more, but delivers one of the undoubted highlights of the set. “New Test Leper” is the tale of a guest on an American chat show, attempting to cite Jesus as a great teacher rather than a religious leader, amidst disinterest from a seemingly secular audience. I don’t know where the idea for this came from (although I’m fairly confident this didn’t happen to R.E.M.’s main man), but it’s beautiful. Somehow, “New Test Leper” manages to evoke all of the band’s celebrated sounds—the mumbled madness, the Byrdsian guitars, the solemn honesty—it’s all in there. Daring his audience to “call him a leper”, the protagonist learns the limits of his power to influence the beliefs of others, as the band crash into an E minor and assume the position for Side Two.

Side Two: Undertow

The position, incidentally, is at ease, relaxed—fluid—unless your only equipment is the microphone. In this case, you are at one moment rigid, formal and the next clinging to anything, a whirlwind pushing you back the harder you sing, never shrinking from the challenge presented in all of “Undertow”’s choruses.

At some point or another, Michael Stipe composed a letter to an undisclosed friend, pondering a relationship of some kind and, once again, “the star thing”. Purposely enigmatic, that letter was a stream of consciousness that made it to record unchanged, save for the lines “Aluminium, it tastes like fear/Adrenalin, it pulls us near”, highlighted in order to provide something resembling a chorus. Peter Buck exchanged a pick for a bow; Patti Smith contributed a haunting vocal crescendo, and “E-Bow The Letter”—a classic, despairing update on Out Of Time’s “Country Feedback” was born.

Closing Side Two is “Leave”, led for six of its seven minutes by a constant two-note alarm sound that dares the listener to stick with it, further introspection and by far the record’s best arranging and production, all gathered up and willing the listener to leave everything behind.

Side Three: Departure

And quite a departure it is, too:
Just arrived Singapore, San Sebastian, Spain, 26-hour trip.
Salt Lake City, come in spring.
Over the salt flats a hailstorm brought you back to me.
Salt Lake City, come in spring.
Over the salt flats a hailstorm brought you back to me.

The nature of New Adventures In Hi-Fi being recorded almost entirely on tour is the simplest explanation for the travel theme that runs so extensively through it. But the pace, here in Side Three’s opening song, is breathtaking. Perhaps the fact that New Adventures… refuses to maintain pace (as depicted in the transition to emotion-laden “Bittersweet Me” and “Be Mine”), constantly fluctuating between hyper-speed to darkened to dirge, touching all increments along the way, is the album’s most exhilarating aspect.

There’s something peculiarly accusatory about the Departure side. All four members of the band are on the attack, just as they had been on Green’s “Orange Crush”, only with renewed vigour. “Binky The Doormat” encapsulates this, taunting the target to “Fuck with me and traumatise”, all the time with Stipe pulling his “doormat face”.

Side Four: Zither

The opener uses the fretless German instrument to refresh the palette before launching into “So Fast, So Numb”. Apparently not a drug song (despite the references), the rhythm section works at its best here, as well as the keyboards. One more road song “Low Desert”, precedes the album’s finale, “Electrolite”. It’s telling that the band still play this song regularly in concert, and that it featured on their recent Best Of compilation. Building on the keys in “So Fast So Numb”, “Electrolite” is largely piano-led. The song wraps the album up neater than it first appears, and I think the following lyrics demonstrate why:

20th century, go to sleep
You're Pleistocene. That is obscene,
Hollywood is under me
I'm Martin Sheen
I'm Steve McQueen
I'm Jimmy Dean

and perhaps most importantly:
Stand on a cliff and look down there
Don't be scared
You are alive

That last one—that desire to live, be free, take risks—is the key message of the entire album. R.E.M. first had to reassure themselves, and with New Adventures In Hi-Fi”, at least attempt to reassure the fans. Almost as if knowing that things wouldn’t be that easy, but that turning in their best effort (which New Adventures… surely is), Stipe sighs, shrugs and mutters: “I’m not scared/I’m out of here”, and departs in the same minimalist fashion he arrived.

According to Peter Buck, when Warner Bros. heard the album that was to take them to the top—Out Of Time—they were dumbfounded: “You think the one with the lead mandolin should be the first single?!”. On hearing New Adventures…, he says, the same people proclaimed, “Hey, there’s three Top 10 records on here!”. In the real world, one that was seeing the demise of Britpop and the rise of the Spice Girls, R.E.M.’s efforts went largely and criminally unnoticed.

So I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

By: Colin Cooper
Published on: 2004-06-01
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