It’s tempting to read New Adventures in Hi-Fi, beyond its actual intentions, in the context of what it ended up representing. The tenth studio album by the band – with that definition being stretched to its limit – would also be the last one that contained the drumming (and occasional song writing) talents of Bill Berry. It was on the hectic and tortuous Monster tour that he would have a life threatening brain aneurysm, and valuing his mental health over being in a rock and roll band would part the band in friendly, but I presume devastating, terms. This therefore is the last record that would have the foursome working together. To some, this is the last “R.E.M.” album.
If these readings seep into the record, it is because the Monster tour would be integral to the construction of New Adventures in Hi-Fi. In pragmatic terms this is because at least half of the album was recorded on the road, between soundchecks inside some of the biggest stadiums in the world. This technique was one the band picked up from Radiohead, who used a similar process to record The Bends when supporting R.E.M, and with that and their next record was setting themselves up as the new favourite band of the perennial art crowd.
In more artistic terms it contributed to the album’s structure and tone. Berry wouldn’t be the only band member who suffered injuries on the Monster tour; both Mills and Stipe would go to the hospital for surgery, and the overall stress of touring and moving from location to location would have certainly had a psychological stress on the whole band. In many ways, this would make New Adventures in Hi-Fi feel just as dark of a record as Monster, with themes of travelling and motion mashing up to themes of isolation, sometimes in the same song. Some of the reverbs of Monster are clearly felt in this record, not just in the punchier guitars, but in the encompassing of characters and intentional kitsch.
But where Monster would distil that darkness into a persona and sound that was so focused that, frankly, it got repetitive, here in typical R.E.M. fashion they reacted to their previous record by going in a different direction, experimenting with a variety of interesting sounds and ideas from more prominent synths to even some hip hop elements (though much more organically than “Radio Song”). This is a record that constantly changes directions, from live elements to studio elements, from quiet to blown out instruments, meaning that there is barely a dull moment in the longest runtime for any R.E.M. album. It is a messy record, but not in the exact same way that Green was messy, even though both were the result of a band making an album in a new context. It is more like, to use that other big 80’s band term, a “scrapbook”, and completely appropriate for the direction (ha) of the album’s themes. For my money it is in the pantheon of the great messy records, like Neil Young’s Time Fades Away – the album the band say inspired this one – the Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come, or the Beatles’ classically messy White Album (thanks again to Cornelius Thoroughgood for this connection).
There is a certain irony to the title New Adventures in Hi-Fi (though different to the Monster kind of irony). First, not all the songs are hi-fi. If anything the recording on the road gives many of the songs masters a compressed quality, which in turn with those songs being written with the open air of the stadium in mind fits in line with the band’s famed contradictions. The second is that, in the process of these new adventures, the band would also make a couple of the most I.R.S sounding “R.E.M.” songs since Document. If this is the last “true” R.E.M. album, then it is the one that touches upon nearly every that came before it. I guess when you’re looking out the window it’s tempting to look at everything that is racing past you.
The album provides its initial impressions in what has to be the strangest opener the band has released for a record to date, in the long titled “How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us.” first starting with some inventive drums and bass that would probably sound great on a sample today, a slight semblance of guitar appears before the song reveals itself to be predominately piano based. There is an also a screech from a synth that took a couple of listens to get accustomed to, but now I can’t imagine the song without it. Stipe on some level seems to be referring to the turbulent conditions the band was going through at the time, but with a sly humour in the context of this “sad” story. For an album so focused on movement, this introduction has images that allude to a journey that has already taken places, with the canary trapped in the uranium mine and the title of the song itself. My favourite part of the song though is the bridge in which, amidst a previously steady beat, the piano goes into a strange, off-kilter solo that is less free jazz than jazz through the prism of a nightmare.
Then, in an abrupt move telegraphed by the silence at the beginning, it moves into a harder sound for the equally hard sounding “The Wake-Up Bomb.” The first of the live recordings, if I had to guess this was originally concocted for Monster, what with the references to glam artists like Queen and T-Rex and being from the point of view of a vain rock star. It feels more outward than songs like “Crush with Eyeliner” and “I Took Your Name” though, not just because of the recording but with the inclusion of some welcome backing vocals from the band (I don’t recall their being any in the previous record). And this still relates to the themes of movement, the party nature of the song (helped by a cool organs behind the ripping guitar) juxtaposed with a character who “rather be anywhere doing anything”. Does he mean “anywhere else”, or just feeling like he is in a place he belongs?
We then switch tones yet again, electric guitars being replaced with acoustic for the swaying rhythms of “New Test Leper”. It still has electric guitar to the back of the mix, and the result is something that wouldn’t sound to inappropriate coming out of Green. Meanwhile the lyrics are certainly something that surprised me, in that they seem like a direct critique of organised religion. Specifically, like “Man on the Moon”, it links religion to showbiz in order to comment on how religious arguments on television tend to results in simplistic viewpoints, and as the bright guitars and Stipe’s tone indicates he is disinterested in the whole matter. Also Mills’ bass line is awesome. Didn’t know where to fit that in, so here you go.
This album seems to have the most religious imagery and subject matter of any R.E.M., good for a band that made a song called “Losing My Religion”. “Undertow” combines both those religious themes with previous ones of location to combine to an agnostic chant of “I don’t need a heaven/I don’t need religion/I am in the place where I/should be”. It also has the most water imagery of a song since Reckoning, though here the water is less cleansing and more of a drowning, suffocating feeling. All that is coupled with a feedback heavy beat comprised of only two chords and a heavy bass line to create something that sounds, on occasion, industrial.
We switch again to acoustic backing for the lead single, “E-Bow the Letter”. This is probably the closest thing to a single the album has, which is saying something considering this song is already pretty strange. The music is pretty gorgeous, with Buck experimenting with the tones on his understated electric guitar and a quiet rhythm from Berry bringing all this together. But here Stipe delivers his lyrics more like beat poetry than anything with a disenable rhythm, matching the melancholic music with images ranging from the sights of the passing ride, to boys-as-girls, to wearing crowns of sadness to licking another person’s feet. It is a cornucopia of R.E.M. themes mashed together to create something unique. It certainly helps to have Patti Smith on the record – who is a goddess that can do whatever she wants – and lend here stable vocals to both act as counterpoint to Stipe and raise the sexual dynamic of the whole thing.
“E-Bow the Letter” might touch on many go-to R.E.M. subjects, but if there is a song that is the key to understanding this record it is “Leave”. It begins beautifully, with acoustic guitars and an organ that makes it sound like it is going to go into an Automatic for the People detour. Then, out of nowhere, that wailing siren of a synth explodes into the scene, and the song begins with the same melody for different instruments. Then there is an expansive sound of guitars that is all kept together by Berry’s amazing percussion work, made very much apparent when the guitars cut off and leave him to do his thing. Where before Stipe would end a side of a record with a calmer feel, here he is as paranoid as he ever been, saying that he “has lost himself in sorrow”, and that what is important for this movement is not going to a new place, but leaving the previous one.
With that, the “Fi Side” begins with a real sense of momentum and travel in “Departure”. A big part of that is the combination of guitars and organs, giving the track impetus with their driving energy. It’s R.E.M though so they still complicate it the issue of travel, with Stipe saying “go go go” but Buck’s counterpoint suggesting they have been “carried away”. The lines are so crammed together it is like trying to experience as much of life and the world as you can, and by the three verses the song seems to conclude that, no matter how much you try, you can’t experience everything you want to.
Such a bittersweet sentiment then moves to a song that figuratively captures that in “Bittersweet Me”. The main thing that makes this song stand out is how much this song sounds like something from the band’s I.R.S. days. Except for the bass line not having the intricacies it would in those single, the verses really have the jangling guitar arpeggios of the band in their first three records. That is of course before moving into something unique with the guitar tone in the chorus. In essence this change of sound is reflected in this lyrics as mirroring the change in the band, with cries of “I don’t/know who you’re livin for/I don’t you at all anymore” possibly reacting to their own backlash. Either way the song sounds tired, as though the energy of this song is the last bout of energy before giving up.
This moves into “Be Mine”, a song that begins with the mellowness of someone losing their vigour. Of all the love songs that Stipe has ever written, this is the one that sounds the most sincere and vulnerable, maybe even more than “Losing My Religion”. Stipe even reflects that ideas in the line “and if you made me your religion, I’ll give all the room you need”, though here the religion line is also quite literal, with him using the power of religion to get the semblance of power, the power he had so battled with in the rest of this album. Either way this is one of my favourites on the album if just for the graceful chord progressions, the surprising lightness assisted by the quiet synth strings in the background.
The desperation and frustration is combined with a sense of bizarre humour in “Binky the Doormat”, appropriate for a song inspired by Shakes the Clown. If nothing else, I never expected to see a song inspired by a Bobcat Goldwaith film, so bonus points for that. The song contrasts the dark and bright with an almost subliminal high organ sound in the mix overpowered by dark guitars. The point of view already appears bleak with the repetition of “defeated”, but in the last verse Stipe really lets it rip with lines like “Fuck with me and traumatize” and “All the beauty that’s trapped inside.” Jesus, is someone going to check that he’s OK?
We are given chance to relax wit “Zither”, a guitar led instrumental that is almost certainly folk, but not the kind we’ve come to expect from the band. The band has made “southern music” before, but this sounds literally Souther American, or along the border; this wouldn’t sound too out of place in a Breaking Bad episode. It really reminds me of the kind of instrumental genre experiments the band would put on Dead Letter Office, and while I mean that as a compliment as those were my favourite parts on that record, it does also mean that it isn’t the strongest composition on the record. But in many ways it isn’t meant to be. It is the calming wind before the storm.
That storm is the track “So Fast, So Numb”, which begins with militaristic drums from Berry before moving into the fast-strummed guitar chords (accompanied with slight piano in the choruses). Here it is Stipe attempting to reach out to another person, as he has so often been doing on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, though here it seems particularly poignant with lines like “How could I be so blind, mis-sighted,/ Not to see there’s something wounded deep.” It feels like the wounds of Cobain and Phoenix are still very much present, and Stipe is convincing another not to make the same lifestyle choices.
After all this talk of destinations and movement, “Low Desert” is the song that sounds the most like it is meant to be played on the road. A big part of that is this combination of grunge and country that very much shows the Neil Young influence, with some slap bass that I don’t think I’ve really heard from Mills before. Here though this is isn’t travelling as a band, but travelling by lonesome, with the radio tower that’s “egging me on” and losing yourself in the wide mountainous spaces. This is the song that most matches this album’s cover.
This combination of movement and isolation makes the climax of “Electrolite” – an (intentional) misspelling of the organic matter inside the self – all the more poignant. After all the harsh emotions in the rest of the album, this is the one with the band sounding the most content, with Mills’ piano coming back to the forefront with swelling string accompaniments, light percussion from Berry and very intentional guitar fills from Buck. After all the talk of departure, this is the goodbye song, with the evocative line of “20th Century go to sleep” showing their willingness to leave the entire millennium they are in. It is in many ways the perfect goodbye to Berry and of the band as a foursome, particularly with those last lines being “I’m outta here”. But in other ways, you could also say that “Up in the sky. Stand on a cliff and look down there. Don’t be scared. .You are alive” were looking at what times were going to be ahead, not just what they will miss.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi is another creative peak for the band, both in their pop aesthetics and in its ambition. But this didn’t match in record sales, being the surprising low point of the band’s time in Warner Bros. so far – when 1-2 million could be considered low – and particularly surprising given the 80 million dollar deal they had recently signed. Many people pin that on the lead single, “E-Bow the Letter”, but if I had to guess it was a backlash resultant in the perception of Monster. In fact, maybe the talk of religion throughout the album was a way to wash some of the excess sleaze off from that record. And with that cleansing the band cultivated a sprawling record of whose issues of travelling, loneliness and faith saw them looking for some sense of redemption and healing. In my opinion they found it.
But unfortunately the band would not allowed to be content with that. Not only would Bill Berry leave the team, but also their band manager Jefferson Holt and producer Scott Litt, the man who had helped cultivate their sound throughout their commercial peak. The band known as R.E.M. would never be the same again…
But the question remains: What now?
R.E.M Album Rankings
- Automatic for the People
- Lifes Rich Pageant
- New Adventures in Hi-Fi
- Fables of the Reconstruction
- Out of Time
- Dead Letter Office/Chronic Town