The Big Takeover: REM – New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Warner Bros.)
REM – New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Warner Bros.)
March 2, 2022
Released in 1996, REM’s tenth album was the Athens, Georgia quartet’s final set before the founding drummer retired (and more) Bill Berry. The bones and much of the flesh on the album were recorded on stage during sound checks and backstage on tour dates in the 1994s. Monsterwhile the band also played songs by Out of time and automatic for the people for the first time after a five-year break from the road. The energetic and revealing portraits captured in New adventures in Hi-Fi are often seen as the culmination of REM’s goal Monster and the band’s last really great work. Bassist and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills himself once ranked the album third behind his debut album Murmur and historic automatic for the people. Singer Michael Stipe called the album his favorite by the band. Hifi stereo earned a No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200 album chart.
Several tracks rightly suggest different perspectives on the restless movement of a group on the road. “Where’s the road I’m on to depart, depart?” Stipe sings during the mournful and unsettling “Leaving”. The song’s double guitars and horn alarm sounds showcase REM’s expanded touring lineup, with Nathan December and Scott McCaughey increasing the layout. “Departure” finds the band pushing towards sonic euphoria with a glorious riff and Berry’s blissful beat. Mills’ soaring background vocals lend extra momentum to a bristling performance by Stipe, who hides the grief of the loss of his friend River Phoenix in musical rapture and lyrics reflecting the disorienting chaos of swirling global activity. The “Low Desert” cinematic passes barren, dusty landscapes with cloudy eyes, struggling through the miles but not eager to return to the centers of civilization where “people thrive on their own contempt”. It’s also the end of the road for an unhappy driver, although fortunately it’s over quickly. “Tricked again,” Stipe sings, without specifying whether he was tricked on or off the road. The album’s austere illustrations include Stipe’s black-and-white photograph of these expanses between cities.
In the press kit images included in the set, Stipe suggests the beginning of Mott the Hoople as a sonic touchstone and outlines additional subject matter covered besides the obvious element of movement. “There is fear, and despair, of death. There are religious images that will be much more made of it than they should be. The resounding waltz “New Test Leper” cites uncomfortable truths from Jesus Christ and Joseph “The Elephant Man” Merrick, with the speaker receiving a stoned reaction from the studio audience of a talk show host. He’s supposedly the guitarist Peter BuckREM’s favorite song. “E-Bow the Letter” features a chorus sung by a key REM influence and a punk priestess Patti Smith. Stipe unrolls the poetry and ponders the trappings of fame as Buck’s buzzing E-bow effect sails across the stage like Robert Fripp’s guitar in Bowie’s “Heroes.”
The loud-quiet-loud approach of “Bittersweet, Me” is reminiscent of Pixies. Stipe purrs and rages about a state of uncertainty, knowing only that he wants to get out of the situation he’s currently stuck in. “The Wake-Up Bomb” is rocker fueled by Buck’s snarling guitar chords, Berry’s thunderous tom-toms and Stipe’s sneering Iggy Pop vocal attitude. “Undertow” glides along Mills’ hypnotic Adam Clayton-ish bassline as Buck’s two-chord hum pushes Stipe to rapturous heights in a song suggesting secular baptism and rebirth.
Tracks recorded after Monster the tour includes the meditative and regrettable “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us”, a spontaneous studio creation with Mills’ piano shifting from a light whiff of reggae to match the dub-influenced bassline of Buck has avant-garde chords à la David Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson. As the title suggests, “Be Mine” is a song of desire and devotion with one of Stipe’s most deceptively beautiful and lighthearted lyrics. The undercurrent of sinister control is associated with the weight of Buck’s heavy guitar sound. Recorded in Phoenix, “Binky the Doormat” depicts an even darker story of devotion with the protagonist declaring love despite the sexual abuse endured.
“Electrolite” is REM at its most musically upbeat. The song features Mills’ sparkling piano, summery wooden blocks and guiro percussion, Buck’s lively banjo and Andy Carlsonfaints the violin. “Your light eclipsed the moon tonight,” Stipe sings fondly in a love letter to his former home in Tinseltown Los Angeles that doubles as a farewell to the 20th century.
The anniversary set includes three discs housed in a hardback book. The first disc is a remastered version of the main album, and only the most extreme purists would find fault with the updated sound. Overall, the new master helps unify and liven up more tracks that were recorded in empty arenas during sound checks. The second disc includes B-sides to all four singles from the album (“E-Bow the Letter”, “Bittersweet, Me”, “Electrolite”, and “How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us”). The highlight of the band’s own B-side compositions is the instrumental “Tricycle”. Buck’s surf-rock twang may remind older “White Tornado” listeners of Office of Dead Letters. The band tackles a handful of their favorite covers, including a catchy acoustic version of Richard Thompson“Wall of Death” with a crying pedal steel guitar. A live performance of jimmy webbthe timeless “Wichita Lineman”, Mills’ studio version of the Trogs“Love is all around” romantic and Vic Chestnut‘s “Sponge” are all charmers. A 808 Status remix of Monster the track “King of Comedy” is the only miss, replacing the REM sound with elements of acid house and techno. An alternate deconstructed version of “Leave”, however, is vastly different from the album version and a haunting climax.
The third disc in the set is a Blu-ray featuring surround sound and Hi-Res Audio mixes along with music videos for the four singles plus “New Test Leper”. Hour-long “REM Outdoor Projections” segment features album tracks set to Stipe’s photography and Super-8 footage, laying around a centerpiece of five concert footage Monster period shows. Performances from a three-night adventure at the former Rosemont Horizon feature Stipe with a Blackhawks jersey tied around his waist. The performances find REM at their peak power, but it’s notable that they’re highly evolved from their jangle-pop roots to a crisp rock and roll band on songs like “The Wake-Up Bomb.” Buck leaps and kicks through an anthemic performance of “Undertow,” while Mills shines in her sequined Nudie costume. Non-album songs include Monster“What’s the frequency, Kenneth.” Berry leaves the drums to play bass for Out of time‘s “Country Feedback” as Stipe sings with his back to the crowd. Buck dominates his mandolin during “Losing My Religion”. Stipe dedicates “Man in the Moon” to Andy Kaufman and stands atop his stage monitors to lead the audience singing “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” followed by his best Vegas Elvis dance moves during the catchy chorus. The set ends with an enhanced version of “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel good)”. The crowd erupts with an arena-sized doomsday chant.
The long tour honed REM to razor sharpness, but took its toll. Stipe and Mills both suffered from illnesses requiring minor surgery during the trek, but Berry suffered a life-threatening aneurysm on stage in Switzerland. Prompt and excellent care resulted in a full recovery within a month. In images from the press kit, Berry describes her joy as she leaves the stage after her first post-op show. “It was a very nice hurdle to jump,” he says. “And then I went to the hotel and fell asleep.” Among other rigors of the job, the injury eventually led to Berry’s amicable retirement following the release of New adventures in Hi-Fi.
The 52-page hardcover book package includes Marc BlackwellTest drive and interview with band members and producer Scott Litt. Quotes are included from Patti Smith, as well as guests Thomas Yorkewhich opened for the Monster tour with Radiohead while supporting Curvatures. The press kit also includes Stipe’s story about then-presidential candidate Bob Dole at an airport. Truly, this well-organized birthday set offers the context and eye-opening information you’ll need. New adventures in Hi-Fi to heart.