So Fast, So Numb: R.E.M. - New Adventures in Hi-Fi 2

So Fast, So Numb: R.E.M. – New Adventures in Hi-Fi

Twenty five years ago, 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 ’80s.

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 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 band’s 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 that 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 that 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 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.

  1. New Adventures was one of my favorites, if not my favorite, upon the first several listens. As you said, it rocks. “Leave” is an intense song. So fast is almost as intense, but it is more of a rocker. Ebow might be my favorite on the album. The lyrics are too-notch. There’s not a skipper on the whole album, but not many of their records have them. It’s an orgasm for the ears.

  2. Great article, so I’m reposting my previous comment to the 20th anniversary review. Thanks for all the excellent coverage this week. So refreshing to read a retrospective that hasn’t simply been a rehash by an aging journo of their best work from 25 years ago, or which contains constant references to articles & interviews elsewhere.

    The album right out of the box captured the raw live sound of the band at their best after a year on the road. It was borne out of the bands desire not just to tour and perform nightly while spending their days on the golf-course, but to have 12 or 14 new songs written & ready at the end of the tour to put out on an album, and to make the Monster tour more interesting for them as a band. Although quite a few were recorded ‘live’ at various soundchecks etc (and a toilet in Milan?), the band booked studio time 3 mos after the tour finished to go back & re-record and remaster the tracks. So, although slightly (unfairly) denigrated as a lesser work / road album by music Journos at the time, it was actually a fully complete album by normal standards where most of the tracks having been perfected during various live performances on the road were tidied up and replayed in studio.
    You should check out the documentary ‘Rough Cut’ which was recorded while R.E.M. were promoting the release of Monster in 1994 & doing some tour rehearsals for some insight into the ideas for what this album would become. I think the band always agreed that this was the album which was the closest to being perfect ; Michael some years later said he could find very few flaws with it and it was the closest they’d come to a perfect album. I can only agree. To me it’s always been their masterpiece, greater than Automatic in that it captured the sound of the band at their peak, and had that rawness from performing live. The heights of this were sadly never repeated over the following 15 years despite coming close on their final album Collapse Into Now, and no doubt lead to the desire of the band to not be seen as a Greatest Hits touring band with their best years well behind them (although you only have to listen to some of Peter Bucks solo work to wonder what could have been) and to respectfully call time on the band after a 3 decades long career. I note you haven’t mentioned Binky the Doormat or Low Desert in your article, which are not immediate stand out tracks, but which definitely add greatly to the overall tone of the album and are held here in high regard. I know I’ll still be listening to this album when I’m in my 90s, and as a desert island disc this for me would be it.

  3. NAIHF is what would have been a classic 70s-era double-album. Unfortunately it came in the CD Era. Bittersweet Me is a track I wish we could have heard live, and Low Desert is a sneaky fave of mine. Nice write-up.

  4. NAIHF is somewhat of a mixed bag for me. I love it as I love all R.E.M. albums but never quite understood the praise heaped upon it compared to some of their other albums. With that in mind; why did every album get a mini-essay apart from their last (IMHO) true masterpiece, UP? Seems strange that such a vital album would be the only one to be ignored.

  5. I agree UP is under rated. It wasn’t intentional just I personally ran out of time with the big workload last week. It is however, mentioned in our Later R.E.M. column and we discuss it with Charlie Francis who engineered on the album on our forthcoming podcasts. But if I find time in the next few weeks, I will write it up too.

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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.