The road, its lure. Its dreamy images of longing, escape, running away and running toward, physical locations and ourselves. The groaning American highway and its place in literature and music, the open haunting vistas of the West.
The road finds a dominant place in R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, a staggering achievement that would mark R.E.M. at both its arena rock and creative peak, and also signal an end of sorts (drummer Bill Berry left the group after the recording of the album) for a quartet that had assembled two decades earlier.
It's no surprise that New Adventures was largely written on the road, during a tour in support of Monster, arguably R.E.M.’s deepest exploration into straight-up rock and roll. Many songs found on New Adventures were worked out and even recorded during live sound checks for the Monster tour. The result is a loose and experimental tour de force by a band firing on all of its cylinders. There's a feeling of floaty exuberance, wistful sadness, and dark yearning on many of its tracks, expressions that only the manically evocative voice of Michael Stipe can cohesively illustrate.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi is part of a reissue series put out by Warner and includes the original CD release in addition to a DVD-A version that contains a 5.1 Surround album mix, photos, and a brief documentary/promo film put together during New Adventure’s recording in 1996.
The album kicks off with "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," but it's almost a shame that REM couldn't reclaim the magically odd single "Drive," which opens the somewhat overrated Automatic for the People. Nonetheless, How the West Was Won is stark, strange, dissonant. Stipe's vocals are clear, as is the production, a marked change from the fuzzed-up operation that was Monster. There's a loose but tight immediacy to the performance that very closely resembles the feel of a great band putting its claws into you during a live show. There’s a road feeling, too, of setting out into the West and searching for something: redemption, meaning, the end of all things.
“The Wake-Up Bomb” is a wonderful and jangling rocker, exciting organs pouring over revved-up guitars. It’s intelligent rock and roll, and it works. Stipe is also at the peak of his ambiguous-with-grand-meaning lyrics here:
Yeah, atomic, supersonic
What a joke, I'm dumb
See ya, don't wanna be you
Lunch meat, Pond scum
My head's on fire in high esteem
Get drunk and sing along to Queen
Practice my T-Rex moves and make the scene
Yeah, I'd rather be anywhere doing anything
“New Test Leper” and “Undertow” are moody mid-tempo numbers that help to build a strange sense of foreboding as the theme of looking at the landscape of society from the road is established. It should be noted that “New Test Leper” is the one song that is significantly enhanced by the DVD-A Surround Sound remix. It sounds far fresher and attains a mildly ethereal flavor that the original album cut never achieves.
The climax of this mood-build is achieved via “E-Bow the Letter,” a goosebump-popping emotional and personal song that sums up the fear and strangeness of life in late 20th Century America.
Aluminum, tastes like fear, there
Adrenaline, it pulls us near
I'll take you over
It tastes like fear, there
I'll take you over
Patti Smith – an innovator in folk-punk and early inspiration to R.E.M. – backs Stipe while a saw (played with a cello bow, the saw is curved and manipulated to create notes) wails away. A blissfully sad organ underpins the piece: the perfect late-night sad song, on the road and teary eyed, coffee and cigarettes at the Grim Diner.
“Leave,” the longest track at the album at seven-plus minutes, builds upon a whirring siren that is first irritating, then soothing, and finally seductive. “Departure” sounds like a call to R.E.M.’s past, perhaps to the Document-era, with rollicking guitar and shout-out, rising harmony chorus.
“Bittersweet Me” is a remarkably powerful and accomplished rock song, swaying sweetly from gentle pop verses to hard rocking chorus. Stipe holds the mix together with his voice, a commanding presence that guides the listener through a soundscape of innocence lost.
Oh my peer,
Your veneer is wearing thin and cracking
The surface informs that underneath,
Underneath is lacking
There are a few filler tracks near the album’s end (“Zither,” “Binky the Doormat”) but there are several songs near the end that should definitely not be missed. “So Fast So Young” is one of REM’s more underrated songs, a strong, pulsing guitar-song driven home by a crisp, intense Stipe on vocals and a whimsical barroom piano.
“Desert” keeps up the bar band spirit with a country-inflected rocker, but it is “Electrolite,” New Adventure in Hi-Fi’s final song, that really puts a wonderful spin on the entire vibe of the album. A gentle, yearning number, world weary yet strangely sunny, it puts a smile at the journey’s end.
If you ever want to fly
Up in the sky
Stand on a cliff and look down there
Don't be scared, you are alive
You are alive
And maybe LA’s famous, rambling Mulholland Drive is a perfect place to end, in the West, at the ocean, with no more land to escape across.
The add-on features of the DVD-A are nice but not essential. If you have Surround Sound and dig REM, it’s worth looking into as the overall sound is enhanced several notches throughout. And, in the case of “New Test Leper,” it makes a significant difference. The documentary is short and sweet, the most illuminating moment being Michael Stipe’s assertion that New Adventures sounds kind of like early Mott the Hoople.
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