Review of R.E.M.’s underrated final album with drummer Bill Berry
By Carter Bagley
After three massively successful albums in the early 90’s R.E.M. was one of the biggest bands in the world. By 1995 they were touring in support of “Monster” and started to write and record a new record while on the road that was much different than their last three. It was titled “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” and was released in 1996 to critical acclaim but commercially was less of a success than the previous. The fact that they were on the road gave the songs a natural rustic and sprawling sound to them, something that was definitely not featured in “Monster” and to much less effect on “Out Of Time” and “Automatic For The People”. The album starts with the slow burn opener “How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us”. It’s slow and effectively sprawling and a fantastic start to a fantastic record. The lyrics are expertly written although are nonsensical and strange in typical older R.E.M. fashion. The second song “The Wake-Up Bomb” is kind of a bizarre song overall with very obscure and random lyrics and Michael Stipe also sings them in a very eccentric way. It has a sense of charm to it though but has a different tone to it than the majority of the album. However track 4 “New Test Leper” is far and away my favorite song on the album and I think it’s an underrated masterpiece. The arrangement of the entire thing is beautiful and Stipe’s catchy and melodic vocals along with his perfect lyrics make this song a masterwork. Peter Buck’s lead guitar and Mike Mills’ bass blend perfectly together creating an emotional and heartfelt sound and Bill Berry’s drums are light and back it all up well. “Undertow” is decent and has a very southern sound to it but the verses are dragging and slightly irritating it but the chorus is effective enough to make the song listenable filler. “E-Bow The Letter” was the lead single for the album and it sounds like early 90’s R.E.M. and the lyrics are greatly written and Stipe recites them almost like poetry. It’s a nice song and a good hint at what the whole album would hold. The catchy and simple lead guitar is what interests me the most about this track and I find myself humming it after I listen to it a few times. The next track “Leave” is very melancholy and the acoustic and backing instruments to the beginning of the song is heartbreaking without even giving us words. It then breaks into a very produced louder sound reciting the guitar we heard in a powerful aggressive way. Stipe sings terrific lyrics in a lovely sad fashion and you almost instantly fall in love with the song especially once Stipe hits the loud notes of the chorus. After the long duration and sadness that was “Leave”, the band counters this with the loud, short, and explosive “Departure”. It sounds like something off “Monster” but not in a bad way and it’s very catchy and has fast-spoken word verses and a catchy chorus. A definite highlight from this album is the single “Bittersweet Me”. It consists of great lyrics, an energetic vocal performance from Stipe and jangly guitars from Mike Mills and Peter Buck. Bill Berry’s drums are also present and give the song a very good rhythm. The album follows the high that was the last song with “Be Mine” and it is easily as good if not better than “Bittersweet Me”. Buck’s guitar is probably the best thing here which perfectly backs up the soft vocals delivered by Stipe. There isn’t really much to the song than those two elements but about halfway through the song picks up in steam and adds more established drumming and bass. “Binky The Document” isn’t quite as good as what comes before as the lead vocals and lyrics seem kinda uninspired but the guitar is ringing and attention-grabbing. “Zither” is a short instrumental track with nice simplistic southern sounding instrumentation. It’s a little interlude of sorts to the albums final songs. “So Fast, So Numb” is a sadly overlooked song from this album and their catalog in general. The lyrics are as good as anything else on this album and the chorus is meaningful and catchy and gets stuck in your head. Everything about this song says single to me and I wonder why they chose some of the singles they did over this. Whatever the reason, it’s still a fantastic song that any fan 0f R.E.M. should check out. Peter Buck also gives a brief but memorable power guitar solo that which is a plus. “Low Desert” is shorter compared to most of the other songs on this album and has a recognizable southern rock sound to it. The lyrics are alright but as a whole it’s a good listen in an album full of great songs. The song that closes the album is the single “Electrolite”. It features a nice and well performed piano by Mike Mills and the lyrics are sweet and clever and it’s a great way to end an album. In fact it’s probably one of the better songs on the album with it’s carefree nonchalant yet sweet feel to it that counters the more grimy southern feel of the previous track. As a whole “New Adventures In Hi-Fi” is a tragically underrated record in R.E.M.’s catalog and is a lovely goodbye to longtime drummer Bill Berry. It’s the end of R.E.M.’s second era and with it having lengthy album-oriented tracks as opposed to poppy singles I can understand by casual fans weren’t as enthused to go purchase this record compared to the previous three. However none of that takes away the fact that this album is catchy, moody, carefree, and has an amazing on the road sound to it that I haven’t experienced in many other albums ever. With 14 songs, most of which being on the longer side, this could count as the band’s first and only double album and definitely one to check out.