Monday, July 31, 2023

REM #10: New Adventures in Hi-Fi

Release Date: September 9, 1996

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Michael Mills (bass, keyboards); Bill Berry (percussion)

Produced by Scott Litt & REM

Side One: How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us; The Wake-Up Bomb; New Test Leper; Undertow; E-Bow the Letter; Leave

Side Two: Departure; Bittersweet Me; Be Mine; Binky the Doormat; Zither; So Fast, So Numb; Low Desert; Electrolite

Recorded over the course of their 1995 tour in support of Monster during soundchecks for their shows, New Adventures in Hi-Fi finds REM at the peak of their powers. The sound is REM at their most bold and melodic. A panorama of styles are on display: power pop, punk, New Wave, and jangle rock.

"How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us" opens the record on a reflective note, MIke Mills contributes a hypnotic piano that centers the song along with Stipe's cryptic vocals, "The story is a sad one told many times/The story of my life in trying times." End of century themes are a recurring thread on the record - and the opening track hits an ominous tone at the height of Pax Americana '90s.

"The Wake-Up Bomb" is punk-rock-pop track driven by Buck's guitar, Stipe channeling a manic character, perhaps an extreme version of himself, who wants to accomplish everything fast:

My head's on fire and high esteem
Get drunk and sing along to Queen
Practice my T-Rex moves and make the scene
Carry my dead, bored, been there, done that, anything

"New Test Leper" opens with "I can't say that I love Jesus/That would be a hollow claim" and satirizes hollow evangelists dominating the airwaves demanding money and offering deranged hope. "Undertow" features blistering guitars, the narrator confronts his mortality without looking for solace from religion, a defiant secularism. 

Patti Smith, a major influence on REM, joined Stipe on backup vocals on "E-Bow the Letter."  At seven minutes, "Leave" closes side one, with more pulsating guitars and driving synth, the lyrics tell of an intense journey of self-knowledge and a drive to escape the past.

"Departure" pays homage to Cheap Trick, with Stipe channeling mid-70s Todd Rundgren in his vocal. "Bittersweet Me" is another rocker, REM at their best with introspective lyrics that builds. "Be Mine" is more stripped down and builds into a romantic ballad. "Binky the Doormat" borders on Dadaist imagery , "Zither" a subdued instrumental. "So Fast, So Numb" is a surreal pop song directed at someone involved in drugs and leading a chaotic life. "Low Desert" channels the early REM sound, a travelogue of being on the road.

The record closes with one REM's greatest songs, "Electrolite." Stipe spoke of wanting to write a farewell to the 20th Century and a tribute to Los Angeles, inspired by driving along Mulholland Drive. The lyrics namecheck icons of American cinema James Dean. Martin Sheen, and Steve McQueen. Mills contributed the sublime piano track, melancholy and triumphant. The song's closing verse:

Twentieth Century, go to sleep
Really Deep
We Won't Blink

Your eyes are burning holes through me
I'm not scared
I'm outta here
I'm not scared
I'm outta here

REM allowed themselves go epic on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but the exuberance running through it was tempered by a sense of finality. In some ways, it's the Abbey Road of their catalog, a record showcasing the best aspects of the band coming together, channeling both the past and future. Rumors were swirling the band was about to break up, and it would be the final REM record with the original lineup. Bill Berry announced his departure the following year. REM continued as a trio until they officially disbanded in 2011. 

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