R.E.M.’s ‘New Adventures in Hi-Fi’ at 25: the band’s bittersweet, experimental masterpiece
R.E.M.'s 10th album, 'New Adventures in Hi-Fi,' turns 25 today. Here's a look back on this underrated classic.
Nineteen Ninety Five was one of the most pivotal years in R.E.M.'s career. Almost all of it was spent on a massive worldwide tour, their first in four years, supporting their ninth LP Monster, a record fueled by loud, distorted guitars doused in tremolo and commentaries on Hollywood culture, excess, and sexuality. Monster was very much the band's "rock star" record, which resulted in the band's most "rock star" tour to date, with support from Radiohead and Sonic Youth. It was also the most stressful, and plagued by problems large and small to the point some called the tour "cursed." The band's new, glammy image didn't sit well with some longtime fans, and the immense pressures of such a massive tour took a serious toll on the band's health; during the tour, vocalist Michael Stipe underwent surgery to repair a hernia, bassist Mike Mills also underwent surgery to remove an abdominal adhesion, and most famously, drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm onstage in Switzerland, causing him to drop out of the tour (he recovered and was back on tour six weeks later).
Despite the tumult, the band found a new creative energy on the road. The band brought along several eight-track recorders to capture rough performances of in-progress songs during soundchecks, resulting in a more spontaneous, natural recording process than the studio. While the new songs reflected the band's then-ongoing infatuation with distortion and loud riffs, they didn't resemble the shorter punchy pop of Monster, instead embracing a less-constrained energy and longer, more ambitious song structures. Happy with the results, the band headed to Seattle following the tour's conclusion to put finishing touches on the tracks, as well as record some new songs.
During the final stretches of the album's recording and mixing process, there was an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm among the four musicians about the new material and the way it was made. As Bill Berry put it during the band's mini-doc Stereophonic on Film, "Going to soundchecks used to mean, 'okay, let's get this over with, and then go have dinner.' This was actually a time where we could actually do something and be creative." Mike Mills shared these sentiments, recounting, "On the last day of the tour, usually when everyone's really tired, we spent an hour-and-a-half at soundcheck. And we were all energized doing these new songs, and we were really excited. It kept me really interested."
The wealth of new songs finally resulted in R.E.M.'s tenth record, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which was released September 9, 1996, nearly a year after the Monster tour concluded. The band's excitement and faith in the material is palpable upon listening to the album, which remains the band's longest to date, clocking in at 65 minutes, with half of the album's track list sailing past the five-minute mark. The record flipped expectations about what an R.E.M. record should sound like on their head; while the country-tinged sounds of Out of Time, the solemn introspections of Automatic For the People, and the hard rock flair of Monster are all present here, they're presented within a much bleaker, more desolate sonic landscape, as the record's blurred, gray-hued cover art suggests. The album represented the band's newfound confidence in crafting less conventionally-structured songs, and remains one of the closest representations of the band's raw live energy of any of their studio albums.
With track titles such as "Departure," "Low Desert," and "Leave," the album emphasizes its on-the-road creation through themes of motion and instability. In this ungrounded creative environment, Stipe sounds unleashed and raw, especially on highlights like the foreboding "Undertow," whose lyrics relate the familiar metaphor of drowning in despair, or on "The Wake-Up Bomb," which features Stipe's emphatic delivery of "My head's on fire and high esteem/get drunk and sing along to Queen/practice my T-Rex moves and make the scene/I'd rather be anywhere doing anything." Stipe's fascination with rock star imagery hasn't yet left his mind, but here he sounds like the confident rock icons he's referencing.
At seven minutes, "Leave" is the album's longest track and centerpiece; it's winding and hypnotic, with a shrill, siren-like guitar lead running throughout its runtime. It's R.E.M. at their noisiest and most chaotic, with a sense of dread and uncertainty seeping through the cracks, as Stipe's lyrics of desperation violently clash with Peter Buck's overdriven guitars. The record isn't all noise, of course, as things mellow out on the more straightforward "Bittersweet Me," which, despite its sugary arrangement, further pushes themes of entrapment and wanting to escape. These themes further extend into "New Test Leper," a portrait of alienation imagined as a guest on a daytime talk show.
Stipe goes on to experiment with a mournful vocal delivery on the droning "E-Bow The Letter," which features haunting backing vocals from a close friend of the band, Patti Smith. The album's lead single, "E-Bow" was a confounding left hook and first taste of Hi-Fi for some listeners, with Stipe, clearly influenced by Smith, adopting a spoken word delivery as he laments his fallen friend, actor River Phoenix, who passed away three years prior. The song's largely downbeat and amelodic style sonically stands out among the band's lead single history (it's surely no "What's The Frequency Kenneth?" or "Losing My Religion") and didn't perform well on US radio, but within the album's track list, it encapsulates the record's themes of wandering and losing one's place in the world in breathtaking fashion. Like on Monster's "Let Me In" (written in tribute to Kurt Cobain), Stipe's presence is especially moving while in mourning; his hushed repetition of "I'll take you over" beneath Smith's soaring backing vocals during the song's outro is pure magic, and remains among the most chilling moments in R.E.M.'s discography.
Through all the doom and gloom there is "Be Mine," one of the album's few moments of earnest devotion and optimism. Alternating between romantic gestures and straightforward obsession, Stipe sweetly confesses to his lover, "I wanna be your Easter bunny / I wanna be your Christmas tree / I'll strip the world that you must live in of all its godforsaken greed." Even more emotionally upbeat is the album's closer, "Electrolite," which paints a heartwarming, transcendent portrait of love against a Los Angeles backdrop as Stipe croons, "You are the star tonight / Your sun electric, outta sight."
But New Adventures' central vision of spontaneity and looseness is perhaps best encapsulated by the record's opening track, "How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us." The song's main motif, a wonky piano riff set to a sparse drum pattern, came together in the studio accidentally. According to Berry, "[Michael Stipe] was playing this ditty on the piano... it sounded kinda silly, but he kept doing it, and I thought 'You know, I'm gonna sit down and play the drums.'...Mike was going nuts, he was like 'that's incredible, that's incredible, we have to work on it!' And 24 hours later, that song was completely realized." The song's highly-irregular melody and pace, paired with Stipe's lyrics referring to travelling west, negative emotions, and "a stroke of bad luck, wrong place, wrong time," effectively wraps up the entire record's nervous and downtrodden energies into a sinister four-and-a-half minute package.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi was the first album as part of R.E.M.'s $80 million contract extension with Warner Bros. -- the largest in music history at the time -- and yet finds them largely rejecting the predictable three/four-minute radio single format. It ended up marking the end of the band's most successful critical and commercial run, beginning with 1991's Out of Time. The album would also be the band's last with drummer Bill Berry, whose health scares and overall dissatisfaction with touring life drove him to leave the band; his absence would be greatly felt on later albums, and although the band's creative spark never truly ran out, they were never quite the same after.
Within the band's canon, New Adventures didn't make the cultural splash that Automatic For the People did, nor did it have the influence of earlier records like Murmur and Reckoning, but it remains Michael Stipe's favorite R.E.M. album, and it has garnered a cult following among diehard fans — one of whom is Radiohead's Thom Yorke, who also considers it to be his favorite R.E.M. record: "I remember that a while before [New Adventures'] release, we were hanging out with R.E.M. in the Penthouse Suite of U2's Hotel in Dublin, a bizarre place. Mike Mills sat down to the piano and played the melody of 'Electrolite' to me. I said, 'This is very simple but also very beautiful'...When you can write something like this, then you deserve to be heard by millions of people."
R.E.M. are reissuing New Adventures in Hi-Fi for its 25th anniversary, and you can pre-order the remastered album on 2xLP vinyl in our store, where we've got some other R.E.M. classics in stock as well. The CD/digital edition comes with bonus content, including 13 B-sides, rarities and other unearthed material. It's out October 29.