New Adventures In Hi-Fi


Warner Brothers Records, 1996

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


[Adapted from a review originally appearing in On The Town magazine on October 1, 1996]

Expectations. Who your parents always wanted you to be, versus who you are. What you wanted your life to be like, versus what it is. The things you want for your own children, versus the things they're already deciding they want for themselves. It's a particularly nasty pathology whereby the idealized image carried forward from the past becomes an 800-ton anchor weighing down whatever follows it in the future.

Expectations. Everything original alterna-rock heroes R.E.M. produced after about 1988 came with huge ones.

But pity the poor idol-destroyers who lay in wait out there in the crowd in 1996, looking for the chance to turn on the performer who'd become too exalted in their eyes, because these four unpretentious guys from Athens, Georgia just kept right on delivering the goods. New Adventures In Hi-Fi, a determinedly loose album assembled from soundcheck takes and quickie studio drop-bys during their ’95-’96 world tour, rings and rumbles and crashes and mumbles with easy authority. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Hi-Fi kicks off with the eerie Bohemia of "How the West Was Won And Where It Got Us," propelled by an electronically-enhanced, hypnotic beat that breaks open into the airy chorus. Then the boys remind us (like we could forget) that their last outing (1994's Monster) featured lots of raw, crunchy guitar, with the aptly named "The Wake-Up Bomb," full of swaggering attitude and ripping fat riffs. This dichotomy ends up being the album's major unifying idea, the human yin and yang personified (or should that be just plain "sonified"?). Gentle, melancholy, acoustic tunes harking back to the Out Of Time and Automatic For The People albums (e.g. "New Test Leper" and the Patti Smith-abetted "E-Bow the Letter") are counterpointed with blasts of amped six-string thunder ("Departure" is a notably uncharacteristic anthem, with gorgeous call-and-answer vocals over a propulsive, crashing Peter Buck lead that sounds fresh out of Pete Townshend's repertoire circa 1972). My two favorite tunes here combine the divergent identities into a seamless whole. "Be Mine" opens with breathy, gentle vocals over a lone, rumbly guitar that, in tandem with Mike Mills' bass and Bill Berry's drums, gradually releases the passion confined inside Stipe's restrained delivery. Meanwhile, "Bittersweet Me" flashes from crisp acoustic strums to raw, hammering licks as Stipe states what's been made obvious by the music: "I don't know what I'm hungry for... I don't know what I want anymore..."

Stipe's lyrics, easier to catch here than in the mostly muddy Monster mix, nonetheless retain his trademark obliqueness. His playful and effective juxtaposition of words, sounds and emotions into a sort of vocal abstractionism are nearly unique in the rock world (the only comparison that comes to mind is with Jon Anderson of Yes, an aural painter of completely different style and genre who nonetheless mirrors Stipe's valuing of sound over meaning). Stipe's gift, though, is in knowing when to cut through the density of his own wordplay and speak his mind simply, as in the closing "Electrolite," which finishes with these words: "I'm not scared... I'm outta here."

He's not scared, no one in R.E.M. is, and we're all the better for it. This wildly varied and considerably underrated album is among the strongest outings of the spottier second act of R.E.M.’s career.

Rating: A-

User Rating: A-



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