By Taking the Recording Process on the Road, R.E.M. Made Their Best Album in New Adventures in Hi-Fi
Celebrate the 25th-anniversary of a landmark that found the band in their most refined form
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To understand how it’s a wonder R.E.M.’s masterpiece, New Adventures in Hi-Fi even exists, one has to return to their Monster Tour in 1995.
Monster was a new sound for the band, who had been through multiple phases. Starting with their college rock days on I.R.S. Records, they churned out yearly records and gained worldwide fame with indie hits like “Radio Free Europe,” “So. Central Rain,” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” When they made the jump to Warner Bros. for 1988’s Green, the band found themselves in the rare position of having complete creative control on a major label while reaping the rewards of a supporting powerhouse marketing department.
By the time R.E.M. released Out of Time in 1991, they were a household name with “Losing My Religion” dominating MTV and the charts. The following year Automatic For The People was issued with the same successful formula of flirting with somber acoustic tunes and made the band even more popular with “Everybody Hurts” and the Andy Kaufman tribute in “Man on the Moon.”
In need of a reinvention, Monster still included the brilliant alternative formula R.E.M. was known for, but this time with more straightforward arrangements buried under layers of distortion and delay pedals from guitarist Peter Buck. With hits like “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, “Bang and Blame” and “Strange Currencies,” the band hit the road for the first time in six years for a massive world arena tour.
The tour was a financial success and featured Sonic Youth and Radiohead as opening acts, but it took a toll on the band. Most famously, drummer Bill Berry suffered a cerebral aneurysm and collapsed on stage in Switzerland. After his recovery, bassist Mike Mills had surgery for an intestinal adhesion a few months later. With bad luck following the band, singer Michael Stipe had an operation for a hernia the following month.
Unbelievably through all of these adverse conditions, the band was recording new material. Inspired by touring mates Radiohead, who had recorded some of The Bends while on the road, R.E.M. brought an eight-track recorder to lay down new songs during soundchecks and downtime in dressing rooms. Following the tour, the band headed to Seattle for a session at Bad Animal Studios, at the time owned by Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson.
“Most records, you go in the studio and you just do ’em. And years later all you really remember is vaguely where you stayed, and the songs and the recording process. But this one I remember every bit of it. It was an experience. It was fucking tough, but we made a record. And it was as challenging as anything I’ve ever done.”
- Peter Buck
New Adventures in Hi-Fi came out of all of the trauma, which celebrated its 25th- anniversary earlier this week. It’s an expansive record with fourteen songs clocking in at over an hour, the longest in the band’s catalog.
It’s also their best.
New Adventures is a culmination of their Warners years, a blend of Out of Time and Automatic’s brilliant songwriting sensibilities heaved through a grinder of Monster’s rawness. It’s also strangely cohesive as it sways between studio tracks and live scraps with varying sound stages.
While we traditionally think of R.E.M. as the foursome of Stipe, Buck, Mills, and Berry, who were all musically at the top of their game during this era, New Adventures has a unique resonant sound with the inclusions of touring members Scott McCaughey and Nathan December appearing on most of the tracks. It checks the rare boxes of both being a traditional album while also glancing at a band’s peak touring prowess.
New Adventures debuted at number two and was critically acclaimed but saw a drop in the band’s commercial popularity, and in hindsight, it’s easy to see why with the new sounds explored. Opener “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” one of the few studio tracks, immediately subverts any previous expectation of how R.E.M. sounded. Bill Berry lays down an echoing beat with an open snare more akin to something from a mid-nineties hip-hop track with Mike Mills striking jazzy piano jabs and Peter Buck on bass. Sure, Mills’ signature backing vocals are here, and Stipe is lyrically on point as usual, but it’s unlike anything the band released.
“The Wake Up Bomb” is the closest song delivered in the vein of Monster, but I also remember seeing a ton of used copies of that album around this time. “New Test Leper,” which Stipe has called his “crowning achievement” and Buck has said is the “most R.E.M. sounding song,” somehow wasn’t a single. It has continued to be a fan favorite, though, written from the empathetic perspective of a guest on any of the awful nineties talk shows.
“Undertow” is another commendable rocker recorded live in Boston, but “E-Bow the Letter” and “Leave” are the genuine features of the first half. “E-Bow” was the lead single for the album and also their lowest charting since the I.R.S. days, but pay no mind as it’s one of the best songs of their career. Recorded in Seattle with punk legend Patti Smith providing a heartwrenching hook, Stipe wrote the song about the loss of friend River Phoenix who had died only a few years earlier. Examination of celebrity has often been a theme for Stipe, and it's one of his finest examples.
Look up, what do you see?
All of you and all of me
Florescent and starry
Some of them, they surprise
The bus ride
I went to write this, 4:00 a.m
Fields of poppies, little pearls
All the boys and all the girls sweet-toothed
Each and every
One a little scary
I said your name
I wore it like a badge of teenage film stars
Hash bars, cherry mash and tinfoil tiaras
Dreaming of Maria Callas whoever she is this fame thing,
I don't get it
I wrap my hand in plastic to try to look through it
Maybelline eyes and girl-as-boy moves
I can take you far
This star thing, I don't get it
- “E-Bow the Letter”
“Leave,” on the other hand, may be my favorite song on the album. One of the many songs on the record about travel starts with a mournful acoustic guitar and keyboards played by Berry and Mills before being replaced by Buck, who comes roaring in on the EBow (this album sold a shit ton of EBows, myself included in the patrons). Recorded at the Omni Theatre in Atlanta during soundcheck, it’s cavernous, and the guitar loop that drives the song is unlike anything else in the band’s catalog.
“Departure” is a classic Stipe and Mills call and response song bouncing around an empty arena in Michigan before “Bittersweet Me,” a more successful second single in the US. “Be Mine” is about as sentimental as Stipe can get while singing, “I want to be your easter bunny, I want to be your Christmas tree,” and it is a fantastic little song.
Stipe and R.E.M. are famous for cryptic lyrics, and “Binky the Doormat” is one of those songs. One way or another, the subject seems anything but pleasant. At the same time, it’s an insanely catchy song, captured in Phoenix. “Zither” is a classic R.E.M. instrumental similar to “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” from Automatic. “So Fast, So Numb” is a fetching number driven by McCaughey’s piano hook before revisiting themes of travel on “Low Desert.”
The album finishes with “Electrolite,” one of the band’s best songs but almost left off the record. A handsome ditty about classic Hollywood and the fading idea of what Los Angeles stood for in it's golden age, Mills and Buck thankfully talked Stipe into keeping it on the record. It's an instantly memorable reflection with mentions of Mullholland Drive, James Dean, Steve McQueen, and Martin Sheen. Recorded at a soundcheck in Phoenix, Mills’ piano and Andy Carlson’s violin is the perfect instance of the brilliance of catching these songs in the moment. It’s also another great music video from Spike Jonze, who co-directed with Peter Care.
"I had a dentist in Los Angeles, who was also a dentist to Martin Sheen, and Martin Sheen was in the dentist's chair, getting his tooth drilled, when I went up to him and said, 'We have a record coming out in a couple of weeks and you're mentioned in one of the songs, and I just want you to know that it's honoring you; I don't want you to think that we're making fun of you.' And he was saying [impression of Sheen speaking with the dentist working on his mouth] 'Thank you very much!'. He was very nice about it."
- Michael Stipe on VH1 Storytellers introducing “Electrolite”
New Adventures in Hi-Fi not only marked the end of an era that found the band at their nineties peak, but it also was the end of their lineup that had been together since the beginning. Road-weary and exhausted from the Monster Tour incidents, Bill Berry left R.E.M. the next year and returned to Athens, Georgia, to work on a farm. R.E.M. would continue to work as a trio with many fantastic studio and touring musicians, but the band consistently missed Berry’s unique drum stylings.
New Adventures may be the only album from the nineties that I’ve had in constant rotation since it was released which has often made me wonder: is your favorite album by your favorite band your number one record?
R.E.M. is an American institution but still somehow underrated. They started releasing records a few years before I was born, but my first memories of the band were dancing to “Stand” at kids’ birthday parties. Automatic for the People was their first album that I took to on my own before quickly buying Eponymous and catching up on their pristine I.R.S. career.
I was also fortunate to see them on the Around the Sun Tour (great show but their only truly awful album) on a snowy November night at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver during the post-Bill Berry days. With no interest in revisiting the past, the band continues to say there will never be a reunion, and they’re about the only ones I believe when it comes to cashing out on reunion tours.
I’ve gone through phases of listening to other bands more, but I always come back to R.E.M. No matter the mood, they’ve got an album that fits the bill. But I’ve never been one to be good with the favorite band question, so for now, I’ll continue to wonder while spinning the vinyl copy I paid too much for again.
A 25th-anniversary edition of New Adventures in HiFi is available for pre-order.