How R.E.M. Ended an Era with ‘New Adventures in Hi-Fi’
A decade and a half into its career, R.E.M. was still finding New Adventures in Hi-Fi, although the band’s 10th album would be the last adventure for a pair of key figures associated with R.E.M from the beginning.
The alternative rock icons’ LP – released in the U.S. on Sept. 10, 1996 – was a road record, literally. The majority of material on New Adventures was recorded in concert, at soundcheck and in dressing rooms during R.E.M.’s huge 1995 world tour in support of Monster.
In some ways the massive trek -- their first in six years -- was a success, as big crowds turned up to hear R.E.M. play big songs in big arenas. But the band also had a rough go of it, with three members falling ill during the tour. Most notably, Bill Berry suffered an onstage collapse in Lausanne, Switzerland as a result of an aneurysm. The drummer received immediate treatment and recovered quickly, but later, frontman Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills each had to have emergency surgeries of their own.
The tour didn’t stop, and neither did the eight-track recorders that R.E.M. toted around to capture its performances. New Adventures has sometimes been described as a hybrid of Automatic for the People’s mournful restraint and Monster’s semi-ironic hard rock. It’s a fair classification because those were the albums from which R.E.M. was playing heavily on tour and because a host of these “new” sounds dated from previous recording sessions.
But it’s too mathematical to stuff this sprawling record – R.E.M.’s longest – into such a small box. This is a weary album packed with songs about traveling and unceasing movement (“Departure,” “Leave,” “So Fast, So Numb”) and lyrics that roll their eyes at fame (“The Wake-Up Bomb,” “Electrolite”). Peter Buck’s guitar is still cranked up to 11, but there’s less of the hunk-a-chunk riffage of Monster and more sinewy, overexposed, tangled sounds. Following the end of the tour, the band reconvened in Seattle to lay down a batch of studio tracks.
“We got into the studio feeling very happy and relieved that everyone was okay, especially Bill,” Mills told Mojo in 1996. “It brought us all much closer and made us realize how important we are to each other. Once we'd been through a crisis like that [Berry’s aneurysm], making a record was a piece of cake.”
The same on-tour weariness permeated the Seattle sessions, though the music was tamped-down. Most of the record’s understated tracks – including the ramshackle kick-off “How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us” and folky “New Test Leper” – were produced in R.E.M.’s short time in the studio. Stipe’s buddy (and R.E.M. influence) Patti Smith also stopped by to inject an extra dose of spooky decay into the droning, bleary-eyed “E-Bow the Letter.”
That song became the lead single from New Adventures – a track which finds Stipe declaring, “I wear my own crown and sadness and sorrow.” In the mid-’90s, R.E.M. had been declared the rulers of alternative rock, admired by everyone from Hootie and the Blowfish to Nirvana. Prior to New Adventures, the band had even signed a reported $80 million record deal to stay on Warner Bros., believed to be the most lucrative record contract to date. Meanwhile, the new record suggested that maybe acclaim, attention and arena tours weren’t just spoils of mainstream success, but also nasty side-effects.
Of course, compared to R.E.M.’s recent trio of blockbusters (Out of Time, Automatic and Monster), New Adventures wasn’t that successful. In the U.S., it still went platinum, but neither hit No. 1 nor produced a Top 40 single – a first for an R.E.M. album since 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant. Reviews from critics were mostly positive, if not glowing, and the album ended up on a host of year-end lists.
But interest in R.E.M., and alternative rock as a whole, was waning… in the States. It was a different story overseas, where the album topped the charts in the U.K., Australia and multiple European nations. “E-Bow the Letter” also became the most successful British single in R.E.M.’s history. New Adventures marked the beginning of the period where the band would become more popular almost everywhere else in the world than at home.
The album also was the last to feature founding member Berry. After the health scare and a grueling tour, the drummer decided he’d had enough of rock ’n’ roll. He traded his kit for a tractor and settled into life on his Georgia farm. Although Buck, Mills and Stipe were shocked by Berry’s exit, the departure was amicable.
The same can’t necessarily be said for manager Jefferson Holt’s split with the band, which came after New Adventures was recorded, but before it was released. Although everyone involved kept the circumstances hush-hush, it was rumored by the Los Angeles Times, that the band parted ways with their longtime manager because of sexual harassment allegations filed by an R.E.M. staffer.
At the height of the band’s popularity (at least in the U.S.), R.E.M. was a mess. And they delivered a beautiful, messy record to prove it.
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