Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘New Adventures in Hi-Fi’ by R.E.M.
Isn’t it interesting how a band can kind of fall off the edge of the world? Unlike other 80s/90s acts such as Oasis or The Smiths, who regularly produce new solo work and new controversies, R.E.M. have become a somewhat forgotten band since they retired.
And when we do think of them it seems to be in the context of three very distinct periods, their classic early indie period (first five albums) their more mainstream period when they first joined the Warner label (the following three albums) and their (perceived) messy later period.
So it will be interesting to see how the music historians of the future view the entirety of R.E.M.s career and their influence. However, this Golden Vault review would like to make a humble case for the later period, using ‘New Adventures in Hi-Fi’ from 1996 as an example.
As readers may know, this was the last album with Bill Berry on drums. Some of it was recorded on the road (often in rehearsal spaces and empty arenas) on the troubled ‘Monster’ tour, and as with ‘Out of Time’ and ‘Automatic for the People’, they did not subsequently tour the album.
The album has several bold moves, such as beginning with the ponderous How the West Was Won, before kicking in to catchier second track The Wake Up Bomb. Immediately we realise we are involved (as the title tells us) in a new adventure, a cinematic adventure in sound and theme. In as much as we can ever tell what Stipe is singing about, these songs seem to concern themselves with the likes of freedom, religion, even travel. And musically, having added poppier melodies (not to mention mandolins) in their middle period, the band now seem set to experiment. Don’t get us wrong, there are still gorgeous melodies (Electrolite), harmonies (Undertow) and riffs (Departure) a-plenty, but the sound is bigger, wider and has plenty of different instrumentation and effects.
Critics at the time said the album suffered from being recorded in fits-and-starts on the road, yet one could argue it informed the album and helped the loose experimental feel. Like other long sprawling albums before it, it engages as an entire piece of work, indeed one could argue it is almost like R.E.M.’s ‘White Album’. This is partly due to the fact that as a piece of work it has many different song-tempos as well as musical variety, along with some of the cleverness of previous albums like ‘Automatic for the People’ and the rock of ‘Monster’, and perhaps a bit of grunge influence to boot. A good case in point would be Bittersweet Me – a song with so much going on in it – catchy chorus, riff, harmonies – it is almost like a patchwork ‘best of’ R.E.M. song.
The band themselves are in good form. Stipe was always a great studio singer, Mills had been growing in stature as both a harmony and lead singer plus his piano goes from strength to strength. As with the ‘Monster’ album, Peter Buck has much more to contribute than in the so-called ‘mandolin years’. And with Berry still in the drummers seat and much of the album recorded on the hoof, it really does sound like a tight rock band in a way some of the later more contrived R.E.M. albums such as ‘Around the Sun’ do not.
The final bold move was adding quite a few experimental un-commercial songs such as Leave and Zither, and the lack of obvious singles from the album. Indeed the album did not sell particularly well, and single-wise there was only limited success with the likes of E Bow the Letter complete with ethereal harmonising from Patti Smith, and what is maybe the album’s strongest song – the Mills piano-driven Electrolite. A line in that song says, ‘20th Century go to sleep’, which now sounds appropriate for the final song of one of the last really great albums of the century.
So, what happened after this? Maybe R.E.M. lost a bit of consistency and certainly they lost some confidence once they became the oft-quoted ‘three legged dog’, although there was still a bit left in the tank as the music historians may possibly confirm, but by any standards this 1996 effort was a good one.
Final word. Check out the b-sides. ‘New Adventures in Hi Fi’ was already good value at one hour and five minutes with very little filler, but the extras include some interesting alternate versions of the album’s songs as well as pleasant stabs at the likes of Wichita Lineman and Wall of Death.