Twenty years ago at the start of September, R.E.M. released their most underrated album. ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi‘ came out in what was a slightly transitional period for R.E.M. They had achieved ‘biggest band in the world’ status with ‘Out Of Time’ and ‘Automatic For The People’, the latter still regarded by many (myself included) as their absolute masterpiece (or one of them, at least). Commercially they were at the top of their game, selling millions of copies of each without even touring either album (apart from a few acoustic shows for ‘Out Of Time’, usually under the name Bingo Hand Job), critically, they were untouchable, with both albums being lauded as defining albums of the era.
The reaction to 1994’s ‘Monster’ was less enthusiastic. Despite selling similar amounts to the preceding two records, reviews, though generally positive, often lamented the passing of the textured, layered arrangements, though many long-term fans celebrated the return of the edgier, rockier band they knew from the extensive tours undertaken through the 80’s.
Released in 1996, ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ suffered by falling somewhere between two stools. Split fairly evenly between ballsy rockers like the glam ‘The Wake-Up Bomb’, ‘Departure’ and ‘Undertow’ and more pastoral tracks like ‘New Test Leper’, ‘Bittersweet Me’ and ‘Be Mine’, many fans and critics couldn’t quite get to grips with the album’s diversity. There was also a mild experimentalism at play on opener ‘How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us’, ‘E-Bow The Letter’ and ‘Leave’. These factors quickly alienated the more casual fans R.E.M. had picked up during the early part of the decade, ensuring that, while the album still quickly went platinum, sales were roughly a quarter of those of ‘Automatic…’.
Upon release, I instantly liked the album, but felt it more of a curio than a firm favourite. Over the years, though, I have consistently felt myself being pulled back to it, and only repeated listenings have made me realise what a superb, and criminally underrated work it really is. Yes, it’s a flawed record; ‘Departure’ and ‘Undertow’ will never make anyone’s list of all-time great R.E.M. songs, but, taken as a whole, I honestly believe it’s one of their top five albums. Its diverse nature, the occasional experimentalism, and its length (at one hour and five minutes, it’s their longest album by some distance) make it one of their most challenging works, but I feel it was this that drew me back to the album time and again for two decades, and, perhaps more than any of the band’s other studio works, ‘New Adventures..’ rewards repeated listens.
It’s a unique album in the bands pantheon, in that it was mostly recorded on the road. Several tracks were recorded live at various gigs across America, as well as at soundtracks and, in the case of instrumental track ‘Zither’, in a dressing room. This was a fact seized upon by some of the less-enamoured journo’s, some of whom accused the band of churning the album out almost as an afterthought, without the attention that was paid to ‘Automatic…’ for example, whereas in reality, the band, inspired by Radiohead‘s tendency to record on the road, where on a creative surge, and they wanted to capture it.
‘New Adventures…’ is, of course, also notable for being the final album recorded with drummer Bill Berry who, after a near-death experience on the Monster tour, had re-evaluated his priorities, and would eventually leave the band early on in the recording of 1998’s ‘Up’.
Most importantly, though, it does, quite simply, have the tunes. ‘E-Bow The Letter’ and ‘Electrolite’ have become firm fan favourites, while ‘New Test Leper’ contains one of the most beautiful, chorus-laden guitar riffs you’re ever likely to hear, as well as some of Stipe’s best lyrics (another strong element throughout the album). ‘Bittersweet Me’ is simply a great single, while I’m led to believe ‘Be Mine’ is one of Thom Yorke‘s favourite R.E.M. songs.
The stand-out track on the album, however, a song which makes the album worth the admission price all on its own, is the brilliant ‘So Fast, So Numb‘. This track more than any other inspired me to write this piece, after listening to it on repeat on a short car journey, then doing so several more times, turned up dangerously loud, on subsequent drives to and from work. It’s a big, rocking track with lyrics that surpass even the classic ‘The One I Love’ as a bitter, dark love song. For me, is more than just the best track on the album, it deserves to be ranked among the bands very best songs, period. Trust me on this one, if you’re not already aware of the brilliance of this track, stick it on repeat, and turn it way up, if you’re not already a devotee, the harmonies that kick in towards the final third of the song will surely have you converted. ‘So Fast, So Numb’ also captures another facet of the record; Peter Buck’s guitar playing is, by and large, characterised by a fuller, chord strumming style, rather than the arpeggiated style that so many associate the band with. Perhaps this is another element which alienated some fans, but it gives the album a full and distinct sound that places it alongside ‘Document’ and ‘Monster’ as one of the bands most ‘rock’ albums.
In the years since the album’s release, it had become a favourite of mine, and I’ve noticed a similar regard for it amongst similarly hardcore R.E.M. fans of my long-term acquaintance, and I have also come to use it as a barometer upon meeting new R.E.M. fans in more recent times. If someone professes to be a fan of the band, I’ll usually ask them what their favourite albums are, if they mention ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’, then they’re instantly alright in my book.