New Adventures In Hi-Fi (25th Anniversary Edition)

New Adventures In Hi-Fi (25th Anniversary Edition)

On March 1, 1995, R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry collapsed onstage during a show in Lausanne, Switzerland; after being diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, he was rushed into surgery. Once Berry had recovered, the band decided to record their new songs live onstage, while they toured. “We wanted to get some of the looseness and spontaneity of a soundcheck,” bassist Mike Mills said. The band members recorded a few more songs for 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi in a recording studio. In their search for looseness, they even recorded a song, “Zither”, in their dressing room before a show in Philadelphia. By the mid-1990s, R.E.M. had added guitarist Nathan December and keyboardist Scott McCaughey to their touring band, and both had roles in recording the new album. But the New Adventures songs maintain a uniform sound—lovely, spare, steady—regardless of the lineup or location of the recording. Michael Stipe, the band’s vocalist and main lyricist, had matured into a fantastic singer and songwriter. On New Adventures in Hi-Fi, he constructs dulcet melodies even when the lyrics are knotty—"Aluminum, tastes like fear/Adrenaline, it pulls us near”—or dense with Biblical imagery. The songs are wordy, especially “E-Bow the Letter”, which includes a keening vocal from singer Patti Smith, one of Stipe’s heroes. But the tunes flow easily, thanks to the way Stipe varies his phrasing from song to song, and the understated playing by the band members and their supporting musicians. Some songs are thickened with heavy guitars (“Undertow”, “Leave”), while others incorporate Farfisa organ, autoharp or banjo. But they never feel at odds with one another. The music on New Adventures in Hi-Fi mostly does away with dynamics—there are no dramatic crescendos, no stops and starts—and, at times, it almost feels like the band is playing on a loop. As a result, it’s an album where small touches mean a lot: Mills’ piano hook and bizarre solo in “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us”; Stipe’s boastful posing in “The Wake-Up Bomb”; the siren alarm running through “Leave” (though it’s so piercing and repetitive, it might not qualify as a small touch). The loping closer, “Electrolite”, is a gorgeous love song to Stipe’s new hometown of Los Angeles, one that adds a final new touch in the form of a moody violin solo played by Andy Carlson. Unlike R.E.M.’s previous five albums, New Adventures in Hi-Fi didn’t have a hit single. The album marks the beginning of the group’s estrangement from the rock mainstream—but, more significantly, it also marked the end of Berry’s tenure in the band. In October 1997, he announced he was leaving R.E.M. and retiring to his hay farm in Georgia. The other three members decided to continue, and faced the challenge of how to reinvent their music.

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