The tenth album by alt-rock pioneers R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi represents an introspective look back to the band's earlier works. Yet, at the same time, it also continues the sonic experimentation begun on Monster, which culminated in 1998's Up.
Released in September 1996, this album was entirely written by Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe. Although the Monster tour was filled with difficulty for the band, they still found time to record enough material for another album. This is R.E.M.'s longest album, featuring fourteen tracks:
- How the West was Won and Where It Got Us (4:30)
This laid-back opener harkens back in mood to 1992's Automatic for the People, with its dark mood and mellow bassline. At the same time, the dissonant piano line and penny-whistle whining in the background remind the listener of the more experimental direction taken with Monster. The understated lyrics smooth the dissonance to produce a song which stands out and is eminently listenable.
- The Wake-Up Bomb (5:07)
After the peaceful, laid back mood of the previous track, R.E.M. startle the listener with this hard-rock piece. Written for Monster but not included on it, this song shares the grungy sound and aggressive tempo of that album. This song, however, is relatively repetitive and is one of the weaker songs on the album. The lyrics, seemingly describing a night of hard drinking and the ensuing hangover, are by R.E.M.'s standards mediocre.
- New Test Leper (5:25)
The hard rock of The Wake-Up Bomb then segues into the folky textures of New Test Leper. Despite the touching lyrics of religious disillusionment in modern society, the song seems forced and uninspired. Probably the weakest track on the album.
- Undertow (5:08)
Undertow returns to a harder and more distorted sound, and restates the themes of New Test Leper in a more effective manner. The frustration in Michael Stipe's voice during the chorus ("I'm drowning, me") is strongly evident and completes this song's feeling of desperation.
- E-Bow the Letter (5:22)
Where to begin with this song... From the opening distorted guitar effects to the serene and beautiful ending, this song is easily one of R.E.M.'s greatest. The sonic experiment of the opening track continues with the use of organ, Mellotron, analog synthesiser, and unusual guitar effects (including the titular EBow). The haunting vocal strains of Patti Smith complete the richness and depth of this amazing song. When the end comes, you wish it hadn't had to happen. I had the distinct pleasure of hearing this song live with Radiohead's Thom Yorke on the backing vocals in Vancouver, British Columbia, in August 2003, and it was just as powerful.
- Leave (7:17)
The longest song on R.E.M.'s thirteen studio albums, it begins with one minute of mellow guitars before breaking out with a siren-like distortion loop and a loud, distorted reprise of the opening riff. The lyrics effectively portray the difficulty of a tour schedule; travelling by day and performing by night. This is one of the grittier songs on the album, and gains some nice texture from being performed in an empty concert venue. An false ending occurs forty seconds before the end of the song, then it slowly limps into a fuzzy, distorted conclusion.
- Departure (3:27)
Another hard rock song about travelling, this time more in the vein of 1987's Document than 1994's Monster. Relatively un-distorted driving guitar riffs propel this energetic, short song on a trip across a wide open sonic landscape.
- Bittersweet Me (4:06)
The biggest hit from this album, this song is filled with infectious riffs and shout-along chorus lyrics, making it a logical choice for a single release. Despite this, a better song in the same vein is So Fast, So Numb. A bit of a let-down after its three predecessors.
- Be Mine (5:32)
This simple and intense song began as the idea to use the words from those little candy hearts as lyrics. The quiet verses are mostly made up of statements like "I want to wash you with my hair" and "I'll be the drawing of your breath", while the full chorus consists of the single line "you and me". The combination makes this a poignant and uncomplicated love song.
- Binky the Doormat (5:00)
A cryptic name for a cryptic song, the lyrics seem to be describing an abusive relationship of some sort, but the exact nature of the relationship seems continuously in doubt. Is it an adult abusing a child? Is it an abusive relationship between two adults? Is it about a child abuse survivor attempting to have a real relationship? All of these are possibilities that can be supported by the lyrics. Who knows for sure?
- Zither (2:33)
A brief instrumental piece seemingly meant to be reminiscent of Automatic for the People's New Orleans Instrumental No. 1. It is not nearly as effective as the earlier piece, but it does serve as a buffer between the heavy rock of Binky the Doormat and So Fast, So Numb. Strangely, there is no actual zither playing present.
- So Fast, So Numb (4:11)
An energetic and textured hard-rock song, this the standout song on the second half of the album. The smoothly transitioning chorus and driving verses describe the plight of someone who (either through drugs or personality) takes life twice as fast as they should. Peter Buck's guitar and Michael Stipe's vocals mesh so well that they could be two very aspects of one instrument. IMHO, this song deserves the attention given to Bittersweet Me.
- Low Desert (3:30)
The last song on the album to feature the grungy distorted guitars, Low Desert has a slight 'country' tint to it, although the core is still pure R.E.M. alt-rock. The weakest full song on the second half of the album.
- Electrolite (4:05)
A serene piano-based ballad, Electrolite closes off the album with a song in the vein of an up-tempo Find the River. The lyrics continue to be incomprehensible, but the smooth connection of the various parts of the song provide an optimistic, upbeat ending to the album which began on such a dark, moody note as How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.
Overall, this album stands out as the most varied R.E.M. album
of the 1990s, revisiting well-known territory while driving forth into new sounds for the band.
This writeup is copyright 2002 D.G. Roberge and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/ .