New Adventures in Hi-Fi marks the end of an era. As the title quote, from final track “Electrolite,” indicates, the album (and that song specifically) is a bit of a send-off to the 20th century, a goodbye that might arrive a few years early but is still fond in its own ways of what has come before. (The album that looked to the future and not the past, arguably kicking off the 21st century digital world artistically, would be released eight months later.)
The other reason New Adventures represents the end of an era, and probably the one more pertinent to R.E.M. fans, is that it was the final album featuring the full original lineup of the band, as drummer Bill Berry, who suffered a brain aneurysm during the band’s previous tour, told the other members shortly before reconvening to record in 1997 that he was hanging up the sticks. Though the foursome– Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and singer Michael Stipe– had all previously agreed that there would be no R.E.M. without all four of them, Berry insisted they continue on and that he wouldn’t quit if it meant the rest of the band would break up. (The remaining members would eventually mutually retire the band in 2011 after thirty years together; Berry’s departure is a neat demarcation almost exactly between the first half and second half of their run chronologically, although they released 10 full-length albums with Berry and only 5 without him.)
The last record with Berry is the one the band cites as their favorite they made, and it may well be mine too.
Two elements really define this album for me: The first is that it’s a road album. Largely written during the band’s previous tour, many of the songs carry lyrics, themes, and stories about constantly being on the move and never having time to rest (back-to-back songs in the middle of the album– two of my favorites, for the record– are quite literally called “Leave” and “Departure”). A lot of the songs have the forward momentum and aggressive energy of constantly being in motion, as well, whether it’s through effects like that killer siren that comes in about a minute into “Leave,” or the energy of just straight-up rocking like they do in “The Wake-Up Bomb” or “Departure.” The latter song, perhaps more than any other on the album, communicates the sense of non-stop urgency that surrounds a touring act. (“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.”) It’s not just the energy, though, but the ambivalence of touring and the exhaustion, that show up throughout the album:
- “I’d sooner chew my leg off / than be trapped in this” (“Bittersweet Me”)
- “I’d rather be anywhere / Doing anything” (“The Wake-Up Bomb”)
- “Go away, go away” (“Binky the Doormat”)
- “I’m drowning me” (“Undertow”)
- “This fame thing, I don’t get it” (“E-Bow the Letter”)
- “To leave it, to leave it / Leave it all behind” (“Leave”)
- “I couldn’t taste it / I’m tired and naked / I don’t know what I’m hungry for / I don’t know what I want anymore” (“Bittersweet Me”)
Fame is its own kind of prison, with the lifestyle needed to keep it and the people who rely on you and how so much public performance without real privacy or time to oneself can simply wear one down in the end.
Some of the lyrics touch on other topics besides the road: “New Test Leper” is the story of an AIDS patient appearing on a talk show. “So Fast, So Numb” is on the surface about the rock-and-roll live-fast-die-young lifestyle, but may be about River Phoenix specifically. “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” and “The Wake-Up Bomb” both touch on the superficiality of fame, success, and the myth of the American dream. Even then, all these add up to a common theme: the emptiness of fame and public measures of success, and the toll reaching for them, or living up to them, takes on you.
And speaking of empty public measures of success: The other defining element of New Adventures in Hi-Fi is that R.E.M. went out of their way to make a number of deliberately anti-commercial decisions with the album. They decided, first, to make the leadoff single from the album “E-Bow the Letter,” possibly the strangest song on the album, with its largely spoken-word delivery, haunting Patti Smith chorus, and, yes, the titular e-bow. That pretty much scuttled any opportunity for the album to launch with a hit single. Another great example, as Stipe discussed in interviews, was the song “Be Mine.” It sounds like a simple, plainspoken love song, but as the band pointed out, every declaration of love in the verses begins with “I.” It’s a self-centered, obsessive song, not that that’s stopped R.E.M. from having misinterpreted hits before. (“The One I Love” is, after all, probably the mistakenly-most-played song at weddings this side of “Every Breath You Take.”) But R.E.M. didn’t want it to be a hit: As they tell it, the producers told them that if they produced it the right way, the song could be a smash; their response was “Okay, well, then let’s not produce it the right way.”
I suspect that some of the reaction to 1994’s Monster may have played into the band’s decisions; at the time, the way the album rocked more than typical R.E.M. fare and also took a lot of inspiration from glam-rock was not what people had come to expect from the band, and it was not especially well-received at first. It’s a great album, though, and I think time has led the critical opinion to come back around on it.
In any case, as a result of those decisions, New Adventures was the band’s least successful album commercially since jumping from I.R.S. Records to Warner Bros.
But the songs are great. The band could still rock (“The Wake-Up Bomb,” “Departure”), make a hooky single (“Bittersweet Me”), meditate on bigger topics (“How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” “New Test Leper,” “Electrolite”), and make music that’s just plain urgent and essential (“Leave,” “So Fast, So Numb”). There’s a diversity of style, too, from the straight-up rockers to electronic-influenced tracks like “How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us” to noisier fare like “Undertow” or “Binky the Doormat” to the gentler tracks like “Zither,” “Low Desert,” and “Electrolite.”
I feel like I talked about the themes and story behind the album more than the actual music or lyrics of this album, but it really is better experienced. The songs are unified in production and theme, but they vary quite a bit, and even at 65 minutes, it’s a compelling listen that doesn’t feel overlong– the urgency and energy of the road album keeps it consistently engaging. New Adventures in Hi-Fi is the band’s own favorite record they ever made, and it’s mine too.