New Adventures in Hi-FiIt was clear during the recording of New Adventures in Hi-Fi that an era of R.E.M. history was coming to a close. The band’s tenth studio album was their fifth and final record of their initial contract with Warner Bros.; their relationship with longtime manager Jefferson Holt was deteriorating; and perhaps most importantly (at the time), longtime collaborator Scott Litt had announced that this would be his last time in the producer’s chair. The biggest milestone, however, was only clear in retrospect. A year after the album’s release, drummer Bill Berry retired, making New Adventures the last album written and performed by the original lineup of Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe. Fortunately, they turned out one of their finest efforts, a stirring album that serves to highlight the band’s diversity.

While not exactly a “road record,” a sense of travel and searching does fill the album. Several of the songs were written and recorded during soundchecks and performances on the 1995 Monster tour and have its hard guitar/feedback-heavy sound. “Binky the Doormat,” “Departure,” “Undertow,” and “The Wake-Up Bomb” had in fact all worked their way into the setlist by the end of the tour, and the album versions do a good job of capturing the energy of the live performances. My favorite song, “Leave,” was recorded during a soundcheck in Atlanta. The seven-minute track opens with an acoustic guitar intro by Berry, then kicks into gear with a siren-like feedback trail produced by backup musician Scott McCaughey holding a single key on an old Arp Odyssey keyboard and moving the octave switch back and forth – a wrist-numbing effort that meant the band could only rehearse the song on alternating days. The effort certainly paid off – the keyboard wail pushes the song along without overwhelming the other keyboards and guitar work. There’s a sense of overwhelming pressure, and Stipe’s vocals play off the music to convey the desperate desire to escape that weight. (Stipe himself said he wasn’t pleased with his performance on this song, and later re-recorded it for a much shorter and far less intense version. So go figure.)

After the tour, the band reworked some of the live tracks in the studio, bringing some of the complexity and production techniques that marked the band’s two biggest albums to the more energetic rock songs. Bittersweet Me, for example, benefits from additional keyboards from Mills supporting some fine Buck guitar work. The song mines some of the same thematic territory as “Leave” – I can feel the longing in the bridge thanks to Stipe and Mills’ vocals – but the brisker tempo also cuts the edge a little bit and makes the song almost wistful. “Be Mine,” an almost-but-not-quite power ballad, was originally demoed on a tour bus but was re-recorded in the studio, keeping only a bit of driver chatter as an intro. The almost-but-not-quite was a deliberate choice by the band, and I think it works well. At first listen, it sounds like a surprisingly sweet love song from Stipe – but as he’s pointed out in interviews, the lyrics are totally centered on the narrator’s desires, bringing an undercurrent of selfishness to the mix.

Several new songs were also added during the studio process. One of them, “E-Bow the Letter,” features guest vocals by Patti Smith, a shared musical idol of Buck and Stipe. The band insisted on making this “folk rock dirge” the album’s lead single – which was such a disastrous choice that the band started leaving such decisions up to the record label. It’s far from my favorite song on the album, and even in the grunge/alternative days of 1996, it wasn’t hugely radio-friendly. In the context of the album, though, it works. More successful is “New Test Leper,” one of a handful of songs that hearken to the more acoustic sound of Out of Time and Automatic for the People. The combination of Mills on organ and Buck on acoustic guitar makes the song almost float as Stipe plays the part of a tabloid talk show guest irked at audience, host, and fellow guests alike.

rating: 4 out of 4 A brief instrumental, “Zither,” was recorded in the bathroom of the arena in Philadelphia, whose acoustics the band found particularly attractive. Berry stepped out from behind the drums on this one as well, playing bass. It makes for a nice interlude between “Binky” and “So Fast, So Numb,” a similarly energetic electric-guitar track. The album’s final song, “Electrolite,” brings in violin and banjo with Mills’ piano to create a fairly cheerful end to things, as Stipe sings, “I’m not scared, I’m outta here.”

Fitting words, indeed.

Order this CD

  1. How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us (4:31)
  2. The Wake-Up Bomb (5:08)
  3. New Test Leper (5:26)
  4. Undertow (5:09)
  5. E-Bow the Letter (5:24)
  6. Leave (7:17)
  7. Departure (3:29)
  8. Bittersweet Me (4:05)
  9. Be Mine (5:33)
  10. Binky the Doormat (5:01)
  11. Zither (2:34)
  12. So Fast, So Numb (4:12)
  13. Low Desert (3:31)
  14. Electrolite (4:05)

Released by: Warner Bros.
Release date: 1996
Total running time: 65:31