New Adventures In Hi-Fi


Warner Brothers Records, 1996

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


Many fans and critics jumped the gun when they first heard Monster, the first album in a long time on which R.E.M. went back to rocking out. I was one of those people. While Automatic For The People and Out Of Time were classics in their own right, many people yearned to hear the towering guitars heard on Document and, to a lesser extent, Green.

Monster didn't leave my CD player for two months. It answered the prayers to many die-hard R.E.M. fans. And to top it off, the band actually decided to tour to support the album. I got a chance to see the band play in Sandstone, a short time after drummer Bill Berry recovered from an aneurysm. And even though most of the audience sucked, the band played great.

But something quite peculiar happened in 1996. R.E.M. released a follow-up album titled New Adventures In Hi-Fi. After the huge response to Monster, and its generally positive response, New Adventures In Hi-Fi was sure to break triple-platinum sales. The lesson was clear: never try to predict consumer behavior.

As the surprise of Monster wore off, many fans began to see the album was one of the weaker albums in R.E.M.'s catalog. And the way that "Hi-Fi" was recorded, mostly live during stops on their last tour, led some fans to believe the album was just a contract obligation to their huge-ass $80 million contract. Could it be that my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Automatic marked the high point of R.E.M.'s career and everything else would be downhill?

Don't be so quick to judge. After two years, Hi-Fi still holds up quite well. The album opens up with a couple of quirky computer blips and goes into a country tale of a "story told many times." Michael Stipe sounds more weary than usual as Berry provides a trotting drum beat.

The album then propells into "The Wake-Up Bomb," which could have very well been a response to Bill Berry's health problems the previous year. While it does have a decent beat, it seems more like a b-sided track to any of the Monster songs.

The weirdness of the album escalates in the song, "E-Bow The Letter," where Patti Smith does a beautiful, spooky cameo. Cohesive would not be a good word to describe the album, as the band has jumped around folk and straight-out-rock styles.

But a theme does generate in the last half of the album. It starts with the uneasy confidence of "Leave," when Stipe makes a couple of declarations of independence. Indedendence of religion, independence of relying on others and a longing to be elsewhere. That theme is carried especially in the second to last track, "Low Desert," when Stipe utters, "Back to the place where you never belonged." It's impossible to shake off that line well after the closing track, "Electrolite" is played.

Other songs don't hold up as well. "Bittersweet Me," is a song that feels out of touch with the rest of the album. It was as if the band had to record a song that was guaranteed to get some air play on radio stations. And that was the only reason they put the song in. Plus, they put the song smack in the middle of the album, so that fans had to listen to the first half of the album. A good move by the band, but it sidetracks the limited flow of the album.

Fans speculating that R.E.M. may have taken a turn for the worse had their fears confirmed when Berry left the band shortly after Hi-Fi was recorded. Blaming this album would be a stupid presumption as to why Berry quit. In many ways, Hi-Fi rings superior to Monster.

The electronic flirtations of some of the tracks on Hi-Fi were taken to a new level with their new album, Up, an album that I have yet to buy. As many fans gawked at the possibility of R.E.M. without Berry, they turned their backs on Up. But from most circles, Up is an extremely beautiful album. I'll listen to that album before I write off the band. Those who have already may have made a cruel mistake.

As for New Adventures In Hi-Fi, I'll let history decide where exactly it fits in R.E.M.'s archives. For me, I see it as a '90s version of their B-sided project Dead Letter Office. Only this time, it's from Monster, Automatic For The People and Out Of Time. It's a good album to admire, but it takes a lot of effort to love. Maybe too much effort for most fans.

Rating: B

User Rating: A-


© 1999 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers Records, and is used for informational purposes only.