R.E.M. were one of the premier rock bands of all time. Fittingly, all of their albums are hailed as classics in one way or another. Even their debut, 1983’s Murmur, which featured the lead single ‘Radio Free Europe’, is regarded as an early classic in college rock. In fact, their subsequent albums throughout the 1980s drew numerous comparisons between them and British jangly-indie pioneers, The Smiths. In particular, the style of Rickenbacker-toting guitarist Peter Buck was seen as a stylistic counterpart to Johnny Marr.
Fast forward to the latter stages of the ’80s and R.E.M. had established themselves as one of the world’s best alternative bands, signalled with the release of 1988’s Green. During the mid-80s, R.E.M. had toured around Europe and gained a limited success, including a rainy support slot for U2 to a disgruntled crowd in Milton Keynes, but it wasn’t until after the success of Green and single’s like ‘Orange Crush’ where they’d truly make their dint on the world of music.
It was Green’s successor, 1991’s Out of Time, that cemented R.E.M. as a stadium-filling band, just like the Irish heroes they had supported to no avail six years prior. Featuring smash-hits such as ‘Losing My Religion’ and ‘Shiny Happy People’, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry were on a stratospheric trajectory. Out of Time’s successor, Automatic for the People, released in 1992, further displayed the fact that R.E.M. were one of the best alternative bands of the modern era. A crossover hit, the band had ditched the realms of Husker Du and the Replacements and expertly straddled the mainstream.
Now in their 30s, it was understandable that the band’s lyrical and musical style had developed beyond punk idols Husker Du et al. They then released Monster in 1994, and in 1996, they delivered to us what the band considered their best work, New Adventures in Hi-Fi. The last to be recorded with drummer Bill Berry, the album remains a triumphant collection of songs and a sonic representation of R.E.M. at their creative pinnacle.
It was also the final R.E.M. album to be recorded under the supervision of original manager Jefferson Holt and long-time producer Scott Litt. A tour de force of the band’s winning combination of personnel, retrospectively, it has come to embody a departure. To many, it marks the end of the band’s classic period, before a perceived artistic decline.
Taking as much inspiration from the country-rock sound that had made the band in the early ’90s and the earlier, alternative rock sound of their fourth album Lifes Rich Pageant, the band also took cues from Neil Young’s classic 1973 record Time Fades Away, and it shines through.
Owing to the fact that the band had only recently been through the personal crisis of drummer Berry collapsing from a brain aneurysm out on tour, the realisation of how much the band all meant to each other, and the happiness that ensued when they realised they were all alive and well, fed into the album’s essence. Harking back to their roots, the band aimed to “get some of the looseness and spontaneity of a soundcheck, live show or dressing room” onto the album. Consequently, it was mainly recorded while touring Monster in 1995, and it was a resounding success.
Furthermore, the band revealed that they had borrowed some of the recording processes for the album from Radiohead, who recorded some of the primary tracks for The Bends while on tour, and they had shown this to R.E.M. while supporting them across 1994 and 1995.
Subsequently, R.E.M. used eight-track recorders to capture their live performances and would proceed to use these as ghost tracks for the album. Through this approach, touring members Nathan December and Scott McCaughey are featured on numerous occasions. Andy Carlson even contributed the brilliant violin line to ‘Electrolite’, which massively augmented the song.
Ironically, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, who cites R.E.M. as a key influence, said in 1996 that New Adventures in Hi-Fi is his favourite by the band and that closer ‘Electrolite’ is their greatest song. He’s not wrong either, the simplicity of the melody and the lyric: “Your eyes are burning holes through me / I’m gasoline / I’m burnin’ clean” is genius.
After they finished touring, the band checked into Bad Animals Studio in Seattle, Washington. They recorded four tracks, ‘How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us’, ‘E-Bow the Letter’, ‘Be Mine’ and ‘New Test Leper’. In fact, one of the highlights of the album is the “punk poet laureate” herself, Patti Smith, who added vocals on ‘E-Bow the Letter’. A reappropriation of the band’s southern gothic roots, Smith’s dovetailing vocals with Stipe hit you right in the feels, as Peter Buck’s E-Bowed guitar masterfully drones on behind it, bringing the song to a climax. Not only an album highlight, ‘E-Bow the Letter’ is one of the band’s best.
In truth, it’s hard to find a bad song on the album, and it seems to just get better and better over its 65-minute run time. One highlight is the slightly sinister country opener ‘How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us’. It sounds more like Nick Cave than R.E.M. It contains a funky Mills bassline and sparse guitar lines in a minimalist setting that slowly ease you into the album.
Another brilliant moment is the fourth track ‘Undertow’. Opening with a swaggering bassline, this is probably the most guitar-oriented track on the album. The Radiohead influences are as clear as day. Peter Buck quite literally sounds like The Bends era Jonny Greenwood, and the chorus guitar line is just so classically mid-90s. An explosive track, the way it slowly brings itself down with Buck’s atmospheric arpeggio aided by a key change is highly effective. The only limitation of the song is that the end is so atmospheric, it leaves you wanting more. It could have quite easily built up into some post-rock wall of sound for another section entirely, and that really would have been an electrifying deviation from R.E.M.’s distinct blueprint.
25 years later, New Adventures in Hi-Fi still holds up. One would argue that it even makes a case as being R.E.M.‘s best album. None of the songs are overplayed, and it is undoubtedly their most refined collection of songs.
Listen to the album in full, below.