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Happy Anniversary: R.E.M.'s New Adventures in Hi-Fi Turns 20

On September 9, 2016

by Gary Suarez


We revisit R.E.M.’s 1996 album, New Adventures In Hi-Fi, which turns 20 today.

The label executives must have been nervous, if not terrified.

Here was a band who’d delivered Warner Brothers three consecutive RIAA quadruple-platinum albums in about as many years, each one with successful singles that appeared to satisfy a wide-ranging listenership. Unassuming ‘80s indie rockers turned ‘90s alternative stars, R.E.M. weathered the storm of grunge that felled heavy metal and other scenes with albums like 1992’s introspective and elegiac Automatic For The People and 1994’s sonically youthful Monster. They’d managed to stay credibly cool to both Generations X and Y at a precarious time when countless other longstanding groups struggled to appeal to either. For that, they’d negotiated an $80 million deal for the next five R.E.M. albums.

So what in the hell was this New Adventures In Hi-Fi? Two years after the last record filled their major label’s coffers and propelled the band on yet another world-beating tour, here were sixty-five free-spirited minutes of post-rock meandering wanderlust posing as a brand new R.E.M. full length. Written and recorded largely on the road, it lacked Monster’s distortion pedal ennui and the intellectual pop glisten of 1991’s Out Of Time. Though the former record seemed a rebellious response to the inadvertent accessibility its own predecessors, its comparatively non-commercial follow-up felt like an allergic reaction to the band's tremendous success in the decade’s first half.

About as opposite to the kitschy delights of "Shiny Happy People," the lead single "E-Bow The Letter" was, at least on its surface, a depressive dirge, subbing a raspy Patti Smith in place of a bubbly Kate Pierson. Songs like “Be Mine” and opener “How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us” resembled ugly country cousins to the bohemian college town folk-rock of the band’s past, loosely arranged ditties with navel-gazing tendencies towards sprawl. Perhaps the experimental proclivities of R.E.M.’s fresher-faced Monster tourmates Radiohead had rubbed off.

Where frontman Michael Stipe had previously proven weirdly relatable--if more often than not misinterpreted--on tip top singles like “Everybody Hurts” and “Losing My Religion,” comparatively much of New Adventures In Hi-Fi played like a maddening road trip word jumble. To suggest he isn’t one of the more oblique lyricists of his generation would be an egregious farce, but the stream of consciousness cut-ups like “The Wake Up Bomb” and a general dearth of brain-tickling pop hooks left little for even longtime listeners to grasp.

A running media narrative around the album’s release referred to a pervasive theme of alien abduction, something the band later dismissed as a load of stinking chum for poor sap interviewers. Still, Stipe looked increasingly humanoid and less recognizably of this Earth in its music videos, skinny to the point of appearing gaunt, progressively shedding gender norms amid continued prying into his rightfully guarded sexuality. They restored the band’s cred for cinematically polished promo clips following the hip avant grime of the Monster ones, the band concealed in blue morning low-light for “E-Bow The Letter” and starkly awash in color for the preposterous “Electrolite.” Much like the corresponding album, these curious videos put distance between one of the biggest rock bands on the planet and their broad audience of humanity.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi was ultimately an album of lasts, the final full-length with drummer and co-founder Bill Berry, the end of their work with longtime producer Scott Litt, the culmination of the R.E.M. that truly mattered to the relative masses. Subsequent albums returned Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Stipe to the safety of studio, all records ranging in quality from the respectable--Reveal, Up--to the insipid--Around The Sun.

Still, for an album that arguably few listeners would revisit in full, New Adventures In Hi-Fi was nonetheless a modest success in the conventional terms of charts, sales, and critical assessment. “E-Bow The Letter” reached No. 49 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. “Bittersweet Me” fared marginally better, “Electrolite” comparatively worse. The album itself peaked in second place on the Billboard 200, swiftly earning platinum certification from the RIAA within roughly two months of its release. No matter its contents, a R.E.M. album was an event, an opportunity for critics to prove they could still hang even as things got weird. It made it onto several year-end lists at publications such as Rolling Stone (No. 4), Spin (No. 11), and The Village Voice (No. 11).

The album’s legacy should also include that of the aforementioned Radiohead, whose game-changing OK Computer followed less than a year later. In retrospect, the parallels exist even despite coming at the very different career stages for both bands. Both were looking to break away from old habits and expectations. Having R.E.M make a risk-taking record around their concerts together assuredly had an impact on the younger act. Apart from the shift to a more abstract lyrical approach following The Bends, Stipe’s influence on Thom Yorke was more of an existential one, something the Radiohead frontman tried to explain in a 2011 Rolling Stone interview. Even today, the most obvious and honest group to compare Radiohead to is R.E.M.

While hardly the perfect twinning of Kid A and Amnesiac, New Adventures pairs better now with Monster than it appeared to at the time. "Undertow" comes the closest, its riff and rhythm shaken from Monster's cobwebs. One wonders why it wasn't chosen as a single for that reason alone. Thanks to Buck's guitar tone, "Leave" could've been a fraternal B-side sibling to "What's The Frequency, Kenneth." 

Some of the undercooked material like "So Fast, So Young" and "Binky The Doormat" deserved to remain as self-derivative soundcheck demos, though the unit's talents and touchpoints do come through even in weaker spots. Whichever version of R.E.M. you love, it's here even if only for a passage or two. "Departure" could've benefitted from studio self-restraint, its megaphonic mic check verse overcompensating for a classic unified R.E.M. chorus. The Crazy Horse Americana of "Low Desert" drifts off too soon, a rare instance here of something jam-worthy.

If anything, revisit this flawed record for "E-Bow The Letter," wherein Patti Smith's glower turns rapturous siren song. A contender for one of the most underrated singles of the '90s, it bends in the wind to Smith and Stipe's will, a precious thing achieved to a lesser extent on The Killers' Lou Reed team-up "Tranquilize." Berry rattles the snare like good jazz, and Buck strums and picks in understatement. At its dystopian zenith, all the players come together in shivering waves of songcraft and sorrow. On an album with few convenient entry points, it’s a way into the world portrayed on in its cover art, of the isolation inherent in the great wide open and too in the small trembling nooks of the human heart. The real adventure is in letting go and letting it actually take you there.

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