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R.E.M. - New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Craft Recordings)

3 March 2022
Released in 1996, R.E.M.’s tenth album was the Athens, Georgia quartet’s final set made before the retirement of founding drummer (and more) Bill Berry. The bones and much of the album’s flesh were recorded onstage during soundchecks and backstage on tour dates supporting 1994’s Monster, while the band were also playing songs from Out of Time and Automatic for the People for the first time following a five-year break from the road. The energy and revelatory portraits captured in New Adventures in Hi-Fi are often considered to be the culmination of R.E.M.’s aim for Monster and the band’s last truly great work. Bassist and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills himself once ranked the album third behind debut Murmur and landmark album Automatic for the People. Singer Michael Stipe has called the album his very favorite by the band. Hi-Fi earned a #2 spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

Several tracks appropriately suggest different perspectives on the restless motion of a band on the road. “Where is the road I follow to leave, leave?,” sings Stipe during the mournful and unsettling “Leave.” The song’s dual guitars and klaxon-alarm sounds feature R.E.M.’s expanded touring lineup, with Nathan December and Scott McCaughey augmenting the arrangement. “Departure” find’s the band pushing toward sonic euphoria with a glorious riff and Berry’s blissful thrashing. Mills’ soaring background vocal gives additional lift to a bristling performance by Stipe, who hides grief at the loss of friend River Phoenix within the musical rapture and a lyric reflecting the disorienting chaos of whirlwind global activity. The cinematic “Low Desert” passes arid and dusty scenery with bleary eyes, struggling through the miles but not eager to return to centers of civilization where “people thrive on their own contempt.” It’s also the end of the road for one hapless driver, even if it’s over mercifully quickly. “Tricked again,” sings Stipe, without specifying whether he was tricked back onto the road or off of it. The album’s stark artwork includes Stipe’s black and white photography of those expanses between cities.

In press kit footage included in the set, Stipe suggests early Mott the Hoople as a sonic touchstone and describes additional topics covered in addition to the obvious element of movement. “There’s some fear, and some despair, some death. There’s some religious imagery that’s gonna be a lot more made of it than it should be.” The jangling waltz “New Test Leper” quotes uncomfortable truths by Jesus Christ and Joseph “The Elephant Man” Merrick, with the speaker receiving a stony reaction from a talk show host’s in-studio audience. It’s allegedly guitarist Peter Buck’s favorite R.E.M. song. “E-Bow the Letter” features a chorus sung by key R.E.M. influence and punk priestess Patti Smith. Stipe uncoils beat poetry and muses on the pitfalls of fame while Buck’s droning E-bow effect sails through the scene like Robert Fripp’s guitar in Bowie’s “Heroes.”

The loud-quiet-loud approach of “Bittersweet, Me” is reminiscent of the Pixies. Stipe purrs and rages about a state of uncertainty, only knowing that he wants out of the situation wherein he’s currently stuck. “The Wake-Up Bomb” is a rocker fueled by Buck’s snarling guitar chords, Berry’s thundering tom-toms, and the sneering Iggy Pop attitude of Stipe’s vocal. “Undertow” glides along Mills’ hypnotic Adam Clayton-ish bass line while Buck’s two chord buzz pushes Stipe toward rapturous peaks in a song suggesting secular baptism and rebirth.

Tracks recorded following the Monster tour include the meditative and regretful “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” a spontaneous studio creation with Mills’ piano veering from a faint whiff of reggae to match Buck’s dub-influenced bass line into avant garde chords a 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 endearingly light lyrics. The undercurrent of sinister control is paired with the weight of Buck’s heavy guitar sound. Recorded in Phoenix, “Binky the Doormat” paints an even darker tale of devotion with the protagonist declaring love despite enduring sexual abuse.

“Electrolite” is R.E.M. at its most musically upbeat. The song features Mills’ sparkling piano, summery wood block and guiro percussion, Buck’s spry banjo, and Andy Carlson’s swooning violin. “Your light eclipsed the moon tonight,” sings Stipe affectionately in a love letter to his one-time home of 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 of purists would find fault with the updated sound. Overall, the new master helps unify and further enliven tracks that were recorded in empty arenas during soundchecks. The second disc includes B-sides from the album’s four singles (“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 instrumental “Tricycle.” Buck’s surf-rock twang may remind older listeners of “White Tornado” from Dead Letter Office. The band tackles a clutch of their favorite cover songs, including a strummy acoustic version of Richard Thompson’s “Wall of Death” with weeping pedal steel guitar. A live performance of Jimmy Webb’s timeless “Wichita Lineman,” Mills’ studio version of the Troggs’ romantic “Love is All Around,” and Vic Chesnutt’s “Sponge” are all charmers. An 808 State remix of Monster track “King of Comedy” is the only misfire, replacing the R.E.M. sound with elements of acid house and techno. A deconstructed alternate version of “Leave,” however, is vastly different than the album version and a haunting highlight.

The set’s third disc is a Blu-ray including surround sound and high-resolution audio mixes alongside video clips for the four singles plus “New Test Leper.” The hour-long “R.E.M. Outdoor Projections” segment includes album tracks set to Stipe’s photography and Super-8 footage, bookending a centerpiece of concert footage from five Monster era shows. Performances from a three-night stand at the former Rosemont Horizon feature Stipe with a Blackhawks jersey tied around his waist. The performances find R.E.M. at peak power, but it’s notable that they’re highly evolved from their jangle-pop roots into a bone-crunching rock and roll band on songs like “The Wake-Up Bomb.” Buck leaps and kicks through an anthemic performance of “Undertow,” while Mills is resplendent in his spangled Nudie suit. Non-album songs include Monster’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth.” Berry moves from the drum kit to play bass for Out of Time’s “Country Feedback” while Stipe sings with his back to the crowd. Buck towers over his mandolin during “Losing My Religion.” Stipe dedicates “Man on 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 rousing chorus. The set concludes with a revved-up version of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” The crowd erupts with an apocalyptic, arena-sized singalong.

The lengthy tour honed R.E.M. to razor sharpness but took its toll. Stipe and Mills both suffered maladies requiring minor surgeries during the trek, but Berry suffered a life-threatening aneurysm onstage in Switzerland. Rapid and excellent care enabled a full recovery within a month. In the press kit footage, Berry describes his elation while walking off the stage following his first post-surgery show. “That was a really nice hurdle to have cleared,” he says. “And then I went to the hotel and went to sleep.” Among other rigors of the job, the injury ultimately led to Berry’s amicable retirement following release of New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

The 52-page hardback book packaging includes Mark Blackwell’s essay and interview with the bandmembers plus producer Scott Litt. Quotes are included from Patti Smith, as well as guest Thom Yorke, who opened for the Monster tour with Radiohead while supporting The Bends. The press kit also includes Stipe’s story about mooning then-presidential candidate Bob Dole at an airport. Truly, this well-curated anniversary set offers the context and revealing insight you’ll need to take New Adventures in Hi-Fi to heart.