My favorite 100 albums of all time: #9 ("New Adventures in Hi-Fi")
From 1983 to 1992, R.E.M. had an unbroken string of fantastic albums, at least by my reckoning. (No pun intended.) To that point, Document was the high-water mark for me, but I had zero disappointment in Green, Out of Time, or Automatic for the People. (I even like "Shiny Happy People" non-ironically. At least I think I like it non-ironically. Who can tell, these days?)
And then Monster. I slogged through a few listens to Monster and then put it aside, disappointed. It seemed R.E.M. and I had gone separate ways. And then New Adventures came out, and all was well with the world.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi isn't a return to old-style R.E.M., precisely, it's a new direction (fittingly) that works damn well. Michael Stipe's lyrics and vocals are at their peak here, Peter Buck is laying down amazing work throughout. And the rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry is as reliable and solid as ever.
"How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us" is unlike any R.E.M. song that came before it, Stipe sounds sedate, the song's meter is sort of cattywampus. There's a sort of drunk piano falling down the staircase bit in here, so awkward and janky it shouldn't work – but it does.
"The Wake-Up Bomb," has a glam-rock feel. I feel like R.E.M. are taking a cue from U2 here, just as U2 embraced the stadium band thing with Achtung Baby, Stipe finally seems entirely comfortable as the front-man getting his Queen and "T-Rex moves" on.
R.E.M. quoting Jesus wasn't exactly something I expected, but New Adventures goes against a lot of expectations. "New Test Leper" is a pleasant tune with a darker and more cynical edge. "Undertow" is full of feedback and static-y guitar, Stipe's voice is back in the muddy mix on this one, but the bass and drums are crisp and clear.
"E-Bow the Letter," is moody, stream-of-consciousness lyrics from Stipe and a lovely vocal turn from Patti Smith.
And then there's "Leave." Starting off like a glacially paced instrumental, you get lulled into the song and then there's a starting gun crack of the snare and Buck's power-drill guitar. This is a "love it or hate it" song, and I fall firmly in the "love it" camp. Berry's drumming is crisp and authoritative here, and Buck's layers of guitar under Stipe's impassioned vocals … even at more than seven minutes, I wish it were longer. Wish that I'd been able to see this one live, though I'm unsure how they'd replicate all the guitar bits going on here as a four-piece.
I hadn't really expected R.E.M. to title a song "Binky the Doormat," but there you are. This is nice and straight-forward rock, if the lyrics are a bit oddball. "So Fast, So Numb" is in the same vein, you can feel Scott McCaughey's influence all over this album, and that's for the good.
"Zither," the album's instrumental, has an almost surf-rock feel about it. The guitar has that wet tremolo sound, but slower pace than something from Dick Dale or Duane Eddy.
There's feeling of finality to "Electrolite," also resignation. "I'm not scared, I'm outta here." And that's it.
New Adventures was the last R.E.M. album with the original members of the band. After this one, drummer Bill Berry called it a day and (at least so far) retired from music. I haven't kept up with R.E.M. since. Sure, I've poked at a few of the post-Berry albums on streaming services but have found little to grab me.
This is a perfect finale for the band, though. It's an incredibly solid album, and it sounds effortless and like they had fun doing it.