19 Years Ago: R.E.M. Embark On ‘New Adventures in Hi-Fi’
See that landscape rushing past the highway on the cover of R.E.M's New Adventures In Hi-Fi? That's the end of the road for drummer Bill Berry. It's the last R.E.M album made by all four original band members, released in the U.S. on September 10, 1996.
But the end of the road is really the beginning of another one if you just turn around and face the other direction. With their next album, 1998's Up, R.E.M. would start their third and final act.
New Adventures marks the recording debut with touring musicians Nathan December and Scott McCaughey. Patti Smith makes an appearance, too, on the great "E-Bow the Letter." Not that this was the first R.E.M. album to feature guest performers; in fact, Life's Rich Pageant stands alone among the band's studio albums as the only one not to feature any additional musicians. They were serial collaborators. But, even at the time, we knew something was different about New Adventures. "This could be R.E.M.'s swan song — or the first day of the rest of their lives," wrote Rolling Stone's Mark Kemp in the magazine's album review.
Although an album of new material, referring to the band's 10th as a "studio album" is technically inaccurate. R.E.M. recorded only four of the record's tracks in an actual studio. The rest were recorded live and cleaned up later by producer Scott Litt. This was a strategy they learned from Radiohead, who opened for them on their ill-fated Monster tour. The process resulted in energetic cuts like the glam-happy "The Wake-Up Bomb."
Lines like "I look good in metallic sick wraparound blackout tease" and "Carry my dead, bored, been there, done that, anything" led some critics to consider the song (and the album) a case of singer Michael Stipe biting the fame hand that fed him. After all, the band was wildly successful at the time, having just signed a new $80 million contract with Warner Brothers. "Meet the oldest whining teenager in town," read Melody Maker's review of the album. "Don't pretend that all the attention you're going to get from 'New Test Leper' ('I can't say that I love Jesus') won't give you a boner, Michael."
In truth, the band had a lot to "whine" about. Keep in mind that this is an album written and recorded on the road, which is exhausting under even the best of circumstances, but during the Monster tour, Stipe, Berry and bassist Mike Mills all experienced health scares – in Berry's case: a near fatal aneurysm. Prior to that, Stipe's friend Kurt Cobain committed suicide. All might have been fine in the balance book and on MTV, but on a personal level inside the R.E.M. camp, these were tough times.
The price of fame certainly winds like a golden thread through the album's 14 tracks, but perhaps more importantly, the sense of movement is thematically reflected in the songs. "Departure" weaves all of the above together, a 26-hour trip around the world while the singer promises someone (Cobain?) that "You will be young forever."
Expectations were so high for the album that a No. 2 showing on the Billboard 200 was considered a failure. However, it was an entirely different story overseas. New Adventures in Hi-Fi hit No. 1 in 15 different countries. Warner Brothers president Steve Baker laid the blame (domestic) and the fame (overseas) at the feet of lead single, "E-Bow the Letter." The band's hometown newspaper, the Athens Daily News, wrote that "while it's been well received in Europe, the plodding, haunting track featuring guest vocalist Patti Smith, peaked at No. 49 in the United States – not that anyone was expecting the song to be the next 'I Will Always Love You.'"
It certainly wasn't. Unlike Whitney Houston's mega-hit, "E-Bow the Letter" ranks among the least likely singles ever released, which is why it still holds up nearly 20 years later.
Three more singles were released from the album, all more conventional than the first but not without their jangly charm. Perhaps the ever-present R.E.M. jangle is what led to the mixed reaction to the album. These songs were supposed to be new adventures, after all, and more contemporary, challenging songs like "Leave" made the more traditionally R.E.M. cuts like "Bittersweet Me" sound, well, bittersweet.
Over time, New Adventures in Hi-Fi sold nearly a million copies and found itself a candidate for reconsideration. Britain's Mojo ranked the album No. 58 on its list of 100 greatest albums from 1993-2006, and here at Diffuser we slotted the record at No. 6 in our ranking of the band's discography (see below).
Will the diehards ever rank the album above classics like Murmur and Document? Probably not, but New Adventures in Hi-Fi is a solid album and a brilliant send off for the original line up.
Worst to First – Every R.E.M. Album Ranked