Happy 20th Anniversary to R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, originally released September 9, 1996.
Old Molière is right: we die once, and for such a long time. R.E.M.’s death was by a thousand cuts. In 1996, the cut that no tourniquet could fix came as the band’s swan song with drummer Bill Berry, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, their tenth studio album. They were four, and became three. Nothing was ever the same again for R.E.M.
The band that helped put Athens, Georgia on the musical map surfaced with the template for a great debut album in 1983’s Murmur. Turning down a truck load of cash from RCA Records, they defined the indie ethos by signing to I.R.S. records in 1982. To think that in 1983 David Letterman—a name now synonymous with late night television—and his producers allowed them to perform “So. Central Rain” back when he opened with unfunny monologues that became funny because no one would laugh at his jokes, while he started to peak with a 2 share in the ratings. One album after the other also created a blueprint for quality in a world that labeled them as “College Rock,” a term the band resented from its genesis, not to mention that not a single one of them graduated from college. Rolling Stone’s lame 1997 feature headline read “R.E.M.: The Ultimate College Band Graduates.” The stigma made them, but it nearly broke them too.
The members of R.E.M. never sacrificed their credibility after signing to major label Warner Bros. in 1988. Each subsequent album topped the next one. They didn’t even tour behind their biggest selling album at the time, Out of Time, with its massive single “Losing My Religion,” which became the most commercially successful song featuring a mandolin since Rod Stewart’s “Maggie Mae.” Nirvana adopted R.E.M.’s independent tenets. Pavement ran with their musical style meshed with the band’s obsession with The Fall, except with Malkmus’ humor imagined over the lo-fi jingle-jangled versions of R.E.M.’s landscapes. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke learned so much opening up for them during the 1995 Monster Tour, praising Out of Time’s “Country Feedback” as one of the most beautiful songs ever written (he would later sing the Patti Smith parts with Michael Stipe on “E-Bow the Letter” during 1998’s Tibetan Freedom Concert).
New Adventures in Hi-Fi almost never happened. Berry’s brain aneurysm in 1995 during the Monster tour produced an unfinished mortality report left with some unfinished passages. The chapter on Berry concludes here, as does the band’s identity. Each subsequent album shrinks in comparison. Up (1998) and Reveal (2001) showcased the three-legged dog guitarist Peter Buck labeled the band. Certainly, it was indeed a dog, but even by Buck’s recognition through language’s limitations, his tongue-in-cheek joke was humorous because it was true. Up continued the experimentations begun on New Adventures, whereas Reveal took them into deeper waters with baroque sounds reminiscent of Wilco’s Summerteeth (1999). 2008’s Accelerate and 2011’s Collapse into Now bore hints of their former selves, but the band’s slow death came during an unremarkable time when audiences knee-deep in EDM ephemera and an infinity of subgenres wondered who they were in the first place.
Singer Michael Stipe and Buck had a healthy obsession with Patti Smith when they first met. Their late night conversations filled with dreams of wondering what she would sound like if she sung with the band, or if she ever wanted to duet with Stipe were stuff of fantasies. New Adventures made that fantasy a reality when she performed on the album’s lead single “E-Bow the Letter.” The title merged the hand-held guitar device, the EBow, which through electromagnetic field vibration against the guitar strings placed near the instrument’s pick-ups creates a sustained vibration evoking a violin-like sound (think: the opening lead guitar line of David Bowie’s “Heroes”), with a letter never sent. It’s familiar relative major/minor opening created the song’s darkened mood with Stipe’s sprechensong delivery and Smith’s gorgeous moans and implored suggestion that she’ll take you over.
“I wore it like a badge of teenage film stars” Stipe says, inserting little fragments of melodies here and there. He confesses, “This fame thing, I don’t get it,” a mystifying notion explored with a different perspective after the death of someone who he befriended, Kurt Cobain, and the near-death experience he witnessed with his close friend and bandmate, Bill Berry. Perfect minimalism left in the dense and dark world of death and what’s next, fame falls short of life’s little things: fluorescent, starry, adrenaline, the smell fear, cuts and dents. Stipe knows the highs and lows of superstardom, how it is fleeting, impermanent, when he asks “Will you live to 83? Will you ever welcome me?” Obviously rhetorical, no answer would suffice. He’s seen other successful bands end, some of his peers who meet that moment when this unique blessing of success erases one unanswered prayer at a time.
New Adventures’ opening track “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” displays the superb piano performance of bassist and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills. The discordant piano chords during the song’s brief instrumental interlude make an impression rarely heard in R.E.M.’s music: an unsettled motif strewn across the decaying, darkened countryside of each song. The image of the “Canary got trapped, uranium mine” tints the song in Southern Gothic imagery. With subdued vocals with a strange dub influence hovering over the entire song, optimism no longer exists. Failure dims the lights on dreams of romantics pursuing the unknown in a part of the already discovered and contaminated West.
The longest album in the band’s 15-album legacy also presented the world with the band’s most poignant love song. “Bittersweet Me” depicts love’s despair and exit with cinematic flair. Buck’s lithe guitar melody manufactures the melancholy set for Stipe’s end scene: “I move across / innocence lost / All flashing pulsar / I move across the earth in my new pattern shirt / I pass satellites.” Esoteric? Certainly. A touchstone that also shaped the band’s identity, Stipe’s lyrics puzzled and were left for whoever encountered the strange verses anyway they would like. The song’s twist, hung in organ lines subtly heavy at moments and lighter during others, comes during the pre-chorus when Stipe croons, “I’d sooner chew my leg off / Than to be trapped in this,” punching through the misery with the chorus leaving the moment—and relationship—with stern certainty.
The Italian film-inspired video, with the opening shot filled with English dubs and the song’s lyrics as part of the dialogue is laughable at first and diminishes the song’s strength, especially with Richard Edson, introduced to us in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as the caretaker of Cameron’s father’s car, the 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spider, face elated as he and his partner catch air. Shot in the same style as many art house films during the ‘90s, it is curiously humorous, and at the same time bizarre. Little seriousness should be taken here, except the few scenes where Valeria Galino is lying backwards on the couch and her middle-aged pursuer kneels down, looking directly into her eyes. Again, a bizarre, but tasteful and strangely touching moment graces the screen filled with other Italian movie tropes.
“Bittersweet Me,” “E-Bow the Letter” and several other tracks were recorded during the ill-fated Monster tour. Stipe and Buck revealed later listening to Radiohead performing a few songs from OK Computer, which in turn inspired them to record demos for their then-unnamed next album. Additionally, many covers that were later released on maxi-singles find the band in rare form. The “Bittersweet Me” single bears the fruit of Glenn Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” while “How the West Was Won” includes a humbly endearing version of the late Vic Chesnutt’s “Sponge,” a song that could easily be mistaken as an R.E.M. track.
More importantly, however, are the songs buried in the ether. “New Test Leper” revisits “Losing My Religion’s” theme, except unevenly and more deeply personal. The line “I can’t say that I love Jesus / That would be a hollow claim” memorializes the loss of faith and the arduous transition away from myths and fairy tales. Stipe’s understated vocals, Buck’s clever layers of guitars, and the band’s discreet dynamics make the track a pleasing end to this version of R.E.M. “Leave” and “Departure” restate the same matching dismal entreats about the world ahead of them. Producer Scott Litt knows the band all too well and fulfilled their vision with the fewest elements necessary. Unprecedented for R.E.M., the album’s focus on relationships and signature minimalism would generate little interest.
New Adventures sold poorly, but record sales be damned. The performances exceed those heard on its most immediate precursor Monster, yet lack the narrative its other two predecessors, Out of Time and Automatic for the People, constructed. The album shyly faded into the sunset, making way almost immediately for its follow-up and strangest record in the band’s repertoire, Up.
R.E.M. was never the same without Bill Berry. The band survived the superficial college rock label, independence, major label demands, stadium and arena tours, aneurysm, near-death experiences, and departure of one of their founding members. But not for too much longer, as they eventually faded out into undeserved obscurity, at least relative to their early and mid-career heyday.