R.E.M. – New Adventures In Hi-Fi

New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996)

A-

1. How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us 2. The Wake-Up Bomb 3. New Test Leper 4. Undertow 5. E-Bow The Letter 6. Leave 7. Departure 8. Bittersweet Me 9. Be Mine 10. Binky The Doormat 11. Zither 12. So Fast, So Numb 13. Low Desert 14. Electrolite

 

Everything they wished Monster would’ve been – and quite a bit more. Perhaps a bit too much more. Clocking in at a sprawling 14 tracks in 65 minutes, New Adventures may begin to blend into an indistinguishable mass of chugging, fuzzy guitars, soaring, expurgatory choruses and arena-sized ambitions by its end, but it also marks a singular achievement in the REM catalog. For the first and only time, on this record, REM are a rock band. Not an occasionally riled up folk rock band (Lifes Rich Pageant), not a tasteless, shitty cock rock band (Monstrous), but an eclectic, tasteful, darkly powerful rock band. As much as they tried to convince us during this era, the heavy, rough ‘n tumble rock thing was never what these guys were about, and certainly not what they were best at. The first two songs on Pageant represent their hardest sound pre-Monster, and I can sound angrier than that just sitting in my room, yelling at my computer for freezing. But here, it sounds like they finally figure out how to be an arena band – they don’t sound outsized, or pathetically desperate to appear right-sized. As a result, New Adventures is without a doubt the pinnacle their typically underfed rockier side.

The reason this record seems so fit for arenas is because it was recorded in them. Apparently realizing pretty quickly that the songs they wrote for Monster sucked, they hurriedly began writing new ones so fast that many of them found their way into setlists right from the outset of what is commonly referred to among REM fans as the Aneurysm Tour, due to the freakish health crisis that befell Bill Berry onstage in ’95. They formed the basis of The New Adventures Of Old Christine – all but four of these songs were recorded live during shows and soundchecks (and, in one inconsequential case, a dressing room – the loping instrumental “Zither”). That explains why living, breathing passion has returned to the band’s sound, whereas anything resembling “passion” on Monster was replaced by crass glam posturing. But it doesn’t explain why, from a songwriting standpoint, they suddenly figured out how to write songs with the same general style and aesthetic as those on Monster without having them sound like they were written by borderline retarded 7th graders and thus blow ass. And though it would’ve been nice if they’d worked it out in the first place, at least they deliver now. Tracks like “The Wake-Up Bomb,” “Undertow” and “Departure” feature well-constructed song structures, non-idiotic riffs, inoffensive (even, occasionally, good!) lyrics and committed vocal performances (Mills is even back to singing the occasional counter melody like the old days after being mostly MIA on the last couple of records). Particularly the latter two – the majestic “Undertow” aims for Led Zeppelin and ends up closer to Pictures At Eleven Robert Plant, but wins me over with its guitar crunch catharsis and “atheist spiritual” lyrics. And “Departure” is just a fantastic fast rock song. Melody-deficient, sure, but crunchy as hell.

But though there are veritable scores of crunchy, honking rock songs here, thanks to the vast running time, this actually might be their most varied album ever, and certainly by far the least blatantly commercial one they’d done in a long time. It starts right off with the low-key, lightly jazzy groove of “How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us,” which features Mills doing a Thelonius Monk impression on piano. And for some reason they decided to release “E-Bow The Letter” as the album’s lead single, which is droney and stream-of-consciousness like “Country Feedback” except with a creepy Patti Smith guest vocal and even weirder lyrics (“Aluminum tastes like fear?” What is that, poetry? My ass. Though I have no doubt attempting to eat aluminum would definitely make me very afraid of it coming out the other end the next morning). It was a bizarre decision, and it certainly wasn’t going to win them back any of the mainstream fans they lost with the reputation-sabotaging Monster, but maybe they wanted it that way.

Really, the only time they clearly overreach on this record is the 7+ minute “Leave,” which smells vaguely of diarrhea, thanks mostly to the nerve-fraying “malfunctioning car alarm” synth they decided to run through the entire song. And, just like the many easily triggered car alarms on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it WILL. NOT. GO. OFF. Too bad, because the song has a good, longing chorus. Otherwise, the only problem with the album is length. I like its sprawl, and, so long as a quality record is being discussed, I usually resent the common armchair producer practice of suggesting that double albums should be shortened and whatever has been deemed their filler be chopped off. I think artists make double albums for a reason – that being, they want to make an expansive statement and every song they include on the album is a part of that statement. And for an album like this, which is a product of the road, it makes sense, because as the great Wes Freed says, “the road never ends.” But with this album, the only thing that results from greater length is greater sameiness. Mid-tempo rock tunes on the back half like “Binky The Doormat” and “So Fast, So Numb” sound good on their own, but after hearing superior songs in a similar style earlier on, one begins to wonder what the point is. Remove “Leave” and save a couple of the less inspiring songs near the end for B-sides and we’d have a legitimate contender for best REM album on our hands. Oh well.

After all, the two best songs on the album are lower key. “New Test Leper” is beefed up, lilting country rock with a story about an atheist taking crap from a bunch of ignorant Christians, inspired by something Stipe saw on a TV show… I can relate. I’m sure a bunch of people took the opening line, “I can’t say that I love Jesus” as a Stipe confessional back in ’96, just like they thought “Losing My Religion” was actually about religion… god, either Stipe is actually a really intelligent lyricist able to disguise his intent in his songs or people are just fucking morons with ADD. I’m gonna go with the latter. In any case, it’s outdone only by the beautiful, understated piano pop of “Electrolite,” one of the best REM songs ever – “Nightswimming” with a great melody and without the melodrama. “I’m outta here” are the final words of the song, and the album – an unwitting kiss off to Bill Berry. Farewell, Bill. And farewell to the real REM. The one that has four guys from Athens, Georgia in it. At least they went out with a bang.



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