R.E.M. made both headlines and music history two weeks ago by signing the biggest record contract ever, a five-album, $80 million mega-deal with Warner Brothers. And with Tuesday's release of their latest album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the band has proven to the world that it's worth every penny.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi is an eclectic work, a melange of the faster garage band sound of Monster and the more mellow feel of Automatic For the People. And like the group's two most recent hits, New Adventures succeeds brilliantly, showcasing the seemingly endless creative talent of lead vocalist and lyricist Michael Stipe. New Adventures features all new material, and plenty of it. Fourteen tracks long, the album clocks in at just over 65 minutes, making it the group's lengthiest.
New Adventures starts off on a soft note with "How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us," and highlights the band's multi-instrumentalism (Peter Buck on bass, guitar, mandolin, and bozouki(!). It then immediately shifts into full speed with "The Wake-Up Bomb." This one is classic Stipe, a concert fave with an upbeat, addictive sound and the band's trademark cryptic lyrics, which often tread the line of randomness while nonetheless making just enough sense to keep fans passionately debating just what the songs actually mean. "Wake-Up Bomb" takes a poke at the "glam-rock" scene, proclaiming, "I had to teach the world to sing by the age of 21/ I wake up ... I threw up when I saw what I'd done."
Stipe outdoes himself on the weirdness factor with the lyrics to "Binky The Doormat" (whose title comes from the Bobcat Goldthwait movie Shakes the Clown, which Stipe was obsessed with), which includes such gems as, "If I'm your oyster, where's the war? ... I know you can't find a fork./ I am just a little acorn" and "you've got sauce, but you don't have knees."
Many of Hi-Fi's songs were written, and even recorded, on the road during the group's worldwide Monster tour. This "on the road" theme pervades throughout the entire album. Much of the album, in fact, seems obsessed with the stress of constantly being on the move; understandably, considering all the problems the group had while on tour (including a series of illnesses such as drummer Bill Berry's aneurysm, bassist Mike Mills's abdominal surgery and Michael Stipe's hernia, as well as the group's recent break with longtime manager Jefferson Holt). Both the simple yet memorable "Departure" and the album's final track "Electrolite"are odes to life on tour.
R.E.M. covers plenty of ground, from Stipe's first-person talk-show testimonial in "New Test Leper" to "drowning" in the tumult of a hectic tour schedule in "Undertow." Both of these songs, along with "Bittersweet Me," alternate soft-spoken lyrics with powerful refrains. It is on these songs that Stipe really bares his angst-filled soul. As he laments on, "Bittersweet," "I don't know what I'm hungry for/ I don't know what I want anymore." The album's longest piece at over seven minutes, "Leave" also uses a similar shift in dynamics as a soft, washed-out instrumental explodes into a hard-rock tour-de-force, while alarms wail in the background.
The rough-edged emotion of these tracks is contrasted by Hi-Fi's first single "E-Bow The Letter," a soft, haunting duet between Stipe and guest vocalist Patti Smith, infamous punk priestess and a longtime R.E.M. favorite. That "E-Bow" figures as merely an average track is a testament to the overall strength of the album.
With a classic R.E.M.-style singsong quality and addictive beat, "So Fast, So Numb" is one of the album's highlights. A whimsical tune which still takes itself completely seriously -- combines the best elements of Monster and Automatic and epitomizes the oxymoronic magic of Stipe's songwriting.
Rounded out by the instrumental "Zither" and some more solid tracks, New Adventures in Hi-Fi delivers over a hour of top-notch rock in vintage R.E.M. style. Signing off on "Electrolite," Stipe sings, "I'm not scared / I'm outta here." With talk of another album coming in a year and a tour to follow, he should be back soon. And if R.E.M. keeps putting out albums like their last few, the $80 million shelled out by Warner Brothers to keep him and his bandmates around should prove to be a real bargain.
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