In 1996 REM was a band on the verge of change. Having released their first recording (the EP Chronic Town) some 14 years earlier, working their way through the ranks of college radio and the indie scene, and finally making the jump to a major label in 1989 (Warner Bros) for the release of their sixth album Green, the band was known for making uncompromising, self contained music on their own terms and without much regard for the mainstream. Although accessible and commercial, with REM the feeling was always one of a band making music that came natural to them. Pop, rock, acoustic, and electric, REM were the "peoples" indie band. And their coat tails were long enough to drag more then a few bands alongside them kicking and screaming into the mainstream. Whether that be good or bad is a moot point. It just was. In the eighties, REM carried the indie flag and others followed. And the world of pop and rock music became the better for it.
But something happened along the way to superstardom that the early 1990's albums "Out Of Time" and the classic "Automatic For The People" would bring them. And that something was grunge, Nirvana, and a whole slew of new bands from Seattle and across the country bearing dirty sounding guitars, angst ridden lyrics, and enough flannel shirts that if tied end to end would stretch across the country. No stranger to noisy guitars and a bit of thrash n roll themselves, and as if swept up in this new wave of music that in the eighties REM had helped move forward (in a "we were the forebearers" sort of way), the band went into the studio for their next album and spit out Monster. A noisy, sludgy album of dirge like tunes and a few oddities thrown in for good measure, this perhaps was the first time REM would be influenced (and perhaps overwhelmed, as many bands were) by what was going on in music around them at the time. And while the resulting album is not terrible and does have it's better moments, it is without doubt the bands stiffist, most claustrophobic feeling album in their entire catalogue. It is indeed the sound of REM restrained and calculated. And those are ill fitting clothes for this or any other rock n roll band that has ever been worth a damn.
So perhaps it is only fitting that it was the tour in support of Monster where New Adventures In Hi-Fi was born. Written and recorded on the road for the most part, this is the sound of a band finding themselves, even while losing themselves, so to speak, in support of an album that didn't quite fit and the stardom that had clearly become theirs just for being who they are. Produced by longtime collaborator Scott Litt (his last with the band) and the band itself, this is a "live" REM album in the best sense of the word. Recorded live at sound checks, in arena bathrooms and dressing rooms, and in a few cases a well suited hotel room, New Adventures In Hi-Fi has the sound of a band on the move and going places. And it would serve well as the last great album of a great band before things changed for good.
The album kicks off with the soft, quiet ballad "How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us". And it's clear from the start this is not going to be "Monster, Pt 2". A song of lilting piano, soft drums, and gentle vocals, singer Micheal Stipe and band get off to a fine start with this vaguely political cut, and by songs end it has somehow assured you that perhaps Monster was a side step of sorts and the band is back on track. After the opener comes the cynical and swinging rocker "The Wake Up Bomb" which finds Stipe jaded and bored as he sings "I've had enough / I've seen enough / I've had it all / I'm giving up / I won the race / I broke the cup, I drank it all / I spit it up / I'd rather be anywhere doing anything". And where other rock stars may sound whiny and selfish singing such lyrics, Stipe's matter of fact delivery and the bands aggresive playing transcend whatever personal meaning these lyrics may have and give the song over to the listener. Which is a band trait REM had always carried with them up to this point, even if it isn't quite true today.
Never shy about wearing his heart on his sleeve, the next two cuts find Stipe both questioning the belief and faith of others and stating his own (or lack thereof). "New Test Leper", another softer cut after the raw and rockin Wake Up Bomb, finds Stipe pointing the finger at those who might judge in the name of their religion while proclaiming himself "Judge not lest ye be judged" and asking whether "all the lambs have gone astray". This serves as a nice lead in to one of the strongest cuts on the album, "Undertow". All noisy guitars, feedback, and with the bass way out front, Stipe states his case in no uncertain terms as he sings "Brother can you see those birds / They don't look to heaven / They don't need religion / They can see", and later sings of his own plight "I can't say I'm fearful / I can't say I'm not afraid / I am not resisting / I can see / I don't need a heaven / I don't need religion / I am in the place where I should be". Bold personal statements to be sure. But once again delivered in such a way that the listener is free to draw thier own conclusions about the staements. Which is something Stipe and band have had a knack of doing since way back when you couldn't understand a word Stipe was singing, anyway.
Reaching back for the next cut, the reflective "E-Bow The Letter" is a song that would of been right at home on the Out Of Time album several years earlier, and the song itself has a looking back on youth vibe about it. Adding the comforting, almost motherly vocals of Patti Smith brings a sense of closure to this track about moving on and finding a place to rest, and the band never strays from it's purpose, playing it quiet at first and building to a grand, sweeping finale. Following all this loveliness is the loop back guitar driven "Leave", and the theme of the album starts to become apparent. A song about finding freedom and leaving behind what you have, it's clear from the music and lyrics this is a band in transition and going places itself. You can hear it in the urgency of the music and the tone of the lyrics, and it's apparent that although REM may of lost it's focus on the Monster album, they found it once again on the road supporting that album.
The second half of the album kicks off with the uptempo "Departure", which sounds like a bad case of jet lag lyrically and musically in it's rushed urgency and vocal harmonies of bassist Mike Mills. While Stipe sings "Here it comes" in the choruses and Mills backs him with wails of "I'm carried away" in the background, this is a classic REM rocker in the very best sense. And it pays to note here that the noisy guitar driven "rock" songs on this album are loose and free flowing as we have come to expect of REM over the years, rather then sludgy and dirge like as found on the previous album, Monster. These songs have much more in common musically and in spirit with what was found 10 years before on the Lifes Rich Pageant and Document albums, and it's that looseness and spirit that was sorely missing on the album previous to this. On New Adventures In Hi-Fi REM capture the best of themselves once again on both the ballads and the noisy stuff. And the listener reaps the rewards.
Settling into familiar REM territory after the hurried Departure, the band wraps things up with a set of six mid tempo pop/folk/rock songs that are as gracious and affecting as they have ever commited to record. From the yearning to break free song "Bittersweet Me" (which includes the biting line "I'd sooner chew my leg off / Then be trapped in this" directed at a played out lover) to the unabashedly innocent love song "Be Mine" which features Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck alone in the verses and joined by the band in the choruses, to the playful and amusing "Binky The Doomat", the tranquil instrumental "Zither", and the scathing, scorned lover get's their due song "So Fast, So Numb", this is quite simply a rock n roll band at the very height of their game and peaking at the right time. And for REM as it turns out, it may of been their last time.
The album wraps up with the mid-tempo rock of "Low Desert" and folk popish "Electrolite" and once again the theme of coming and going, departing and arriving, and the consequences of such things are explored and examined. "Twentieth century go to sleep / Really deep / We won't blink" Stipe sings in the last chorus of what would turn out to be the bands last song recorded together before drummer Bill Berry would leave the band for good, and the final line of "I'm outta here" is now more then a little prophetic. Coming and going, coming and going, and then finally gone.
Some might say New Adventures In Hi - Fi is an important record because it's the last album made by the "original" REM, and they haven't been the same since. Others might say it's important because it was a recovery from the mediocre Monster. Still many others (even some who claim to be fans) have never even heard the album. Perhaps under heard, and most definitley criminally underrated by some, New Adventures In Hi - Fi is quite simply one of the better and best albums ever put out by this band over it's entire career. Expansive at 14 songs with not a clunker in the bunch, and running at over an hour in length, this is the sound of a band drawing on every single aspect of their musical career and delivering it via a sweet valentine from the road. Rocking, rollicking, soft, tender, angry, hard, and pop, this is REM's everything and
the kitchen sink album. And it is a must have for every single REM fan or music fan in general. Important album or not.