Sometime after the release of his band's surprisingly sedate, acoustic-based
album Automatic for the People, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck joked that
the band was going to lock up all the mandolins and organs that had graced
Automatic and its predecessor, Out of Time, and move ahead to
make a straight rock & roll record. And that they did, releasing
Monster, their "grungiest" record to date, in 1994. But fortunately,
for anyone like me who adored Automatic for the People, the banishment
of mandolins, keyboards, and organs wasn't permanent. How fitting for a band
that, despite its permanent presence in rock music's landscape, has never
steered any one course for long.
R.E.M.'s latest album, New Adventures in Hi Fi, is definitely an
record, comfortingly familiar in its sound. Much of these songs were written--and
recorded--on the road, while on their year-long world tour in support
of Monster. So it's no surprise that many of the tracks have that
noisy guitar sound that was so prevalent on that release. But there are also
the throwbacks to Automatic--among them, the short, delicately somber
instrumental "Zither," and Mike Mills' gorgeous jazz piano interlude on "How
the West Was Won and Where It Got Us"--and to earlier albums like Fables
of the Reconstruction. In fact, after listening to Hi Fi's
"Bittersweet Me," an introspective but upbeat, climaxing rock song, I had a
strange desire, for reasons I haven't quite figured out, to go put on
Don't get me wrong. Hi Fi doesn't really sound anything like
Murmur or any of their other past efforts; these songs are fresh and
original, yet still strangely reminiscent of the band's body of work. R.E.M.
has spent more than a decade crafting a distinct sound, while constantly,
naturally redefining that sound. In this age of copycat bands finding easy
success, many great artists are forced to either awkwardly reinvent
themselves or reassert what they've been until it becomes tired and old. Not
many bands are lucky enough to escape this fate as easily as R.E.M., whose
has been guided only by their ever-increasing lyrical wisdom and musical
sophistication that, after ten albums, is simply unavoidable for a band this
As mentioned, this album was born on the road. Guitarist Buck chalks it up
to a desire to be free from the sterile studio environment. Basic tracks for
most of the tunes were taken from sound checks and live performances, with
varying amounts of tooling around in the studio added later. Still, the
rough edges to the songs capture the chaos of the time, all of which makes it
curious that the result is an incredibly cohesive album.
Understandably, Michael Stipe's lyrics reflect the touring life the band was
immersed in while they wrote these songs--the constant collage of
nondescript hotel rooms and a never-ending parade of fans' eager faces. On
"Departure," the band's guitars and crashing symbols drive the melody while
Stipe sings about rushing through the moments, just to do them over again:
"Just arrived Singapore, San Sebastian, Spain, 26-hour trip/ Salt Lake City,
come in spring." "I'm carried away," bassist Mike Mills sings in the
background, while Stipe counters with "Here it comes ... back."
Then there's the more philosophical side of touring--the glory of success
balanced against the price of fame. "I'm drowning me," Stipe sings in
"Undertow," backed by Buck's wailing guitar. But before the song ends, he
admits "I am breathing water/ You know the body's got to breathe." There's
no denying that the force that pulls them down is the very thing that
sustains them. "I can't say I'm fearful/ I can't say I'm not afraid/ But I
am not resisting, I can see." Call it fatalism if you want, but if it's the
life you choose to live, you might as well learn to accept it.
"E-Bow the Letter," a dirge-like tune right up to its beautiful but weeping
guitar coda, seems like an unlikely candidate for a first single, except for
the guest vocal appearance by Patti Smith. The stream of consciousness
lyrics (according to Buck, word for word a letter that Stipe wrote to
someone) reveal a vulnerable side, full of doubt: "This star thing, I don't
get it." He confesses to knowing "the taste of fear," and Smith's angelic,
deep alto voice answers with a soothing "I'll take you over there."
Like a needed jolt, "Leave" follows right on the heels of "E-Bow." Despite
the car-alarm-sounding synthesizer that's a constant throughout the song,
there's a restrained urgency to the music that makes Stipe's pleading chorus
of "I'm leaving, leave it all behind" all the more effective. Drummer Bill
Berry may not be flashy, but he's always solid, always powerful. On songs
like this one, not to mention "Bittersweet Me" and "So Fast, So Numb," he's
the force behind the guitars that really propels the melodies.
A pair of brilliant songs on the album look beyond life in a band to
contemplate the scenes we all encounter. "Wake Up Bomb" is a playful, noisy
number, offering a somewhat jaded perspective on poseurs, trends, and the
"hot new scene of the moment." But how "new" is it? Not very, and the
accompanying attitude of superiority about the whole thing never changes much
My head's on fire in high esteem
Get drunk and sing along to Queen
Practice my T-Rex moves and make the scene
Carry my dead, bored, been there, done that, anything.
The song's catchiest line--"I get high on my attitude, latitude, 1973"--could
be tagged as a cynical outlook, but more likely it's just a
revelation to culture's cyclical nature.
Cynicism is saved for "New Test Leper." Lyrically one of the most powerful
songs on the album, it's matched with acoustic guitar and organ. If "Wake Up
Bomb" was a peek at life on the inside, "Leper" illustrates that, by
necessity, the "inside" creates an outside--a world of outcasts that we as a
society are just as fascinated by. "'Judge not lest ye be judged.'/ What a
beautiful refrain./ The studio audience disagrees ... 'You are lost and
disillusioned.'/ What an awful thing to say." The "sad parade" of "lepers"
that fill up hours of daytime talk show television provides a powerfully
The album itself though, is anything but bleak. Reassuringly, it offers a
love song or two. "Be Mine" is a full-sounding, simply structured melody,
but Stipe's insightful lyrics are stunningly honest. To his lover he says "I
wanna be your Easter bunny/ I wanna be your Christmas tree" but along with
that comes the promise "I'll pull the tar out of your feathers/ I'll pluck
the thorns out of your feet." As before, it's an acceptance of the good with
That acceptance--that realization--is not uncommon. On "How the West Was
Won," the lead-off track, Stipe sings "The story of my life's been told many
times," knowing that, as unique as his situation is, it's pretty routine to
be a unique situation. The band is resolutely aware that you can't spend too
much time wondering where you're going if you're already on your way there.
Revisiting this idea in the closing song, "Electrolite," Stipe sings about a
love, a passion, a dream that empowers you, energizes you to go forward, to
experience whatever lies ahead; and then, "You are alive." "You're eyes are
burnin' holes through me," he confesses, but "I'm not scared. I'm outta here.
I'm not scared. I'm outta here." Time to move on.