Say you’re R.E.M.: By the mid-1990s, you’ve become one of the biggest rock bands in the world. What’s your next move? Leaning into the stardom and teaming up with a big-name producer? Retreating from the spotlight and then breaking up? Or doing something ambitious, unusual, and completely unexpected?
If you guessed the latter, you’d be right. In a move that now feels very in character with hindsight, R.E.M. decided to write and record most of a new album while on the extensive world tour supporting 1995's global smash Monster, breaking up the monotony of concrete arenas and daily sound checks with songwriting. The resulting album, New Adventures In Hi-Fi—newly re-released with a companion album of bonus material from the time—is a batch of scribbled postcards from the road, chronicling bursts of grief, alienation, inspiration, and optimism.
As might be expected, New Adventures In Hi-Fi is the most eclectic R.E.M. album. While “Bittersweet Me” is immediately recognizable as an R.E.M. song—credit Peter Buck’s melancholy guitar arpeggios—and “So Fast, So Numb” is a raging rocker, other moments are surprising. “Leave” is dominated by urgent, harsh synth that revolves like a screaming siren; “Be Mine” is lovely, lo-fi fuzz-rock; “Low Desert” is a bluesy, dusty roadhouse blues dirge. And “E-Bow The Letter,” a meditative epistolary featuring the somber invocations of guest Patti Smith, is its own genre, drawing on gentle guitar jangle, electric sitar and mellotron for chamber music-inspired beauty.
Although the lengthy Monster tour was marred by unforeseen medical issues, including drummer Bill Berry having a brain aneurysm onstage during a show, the album itself doesn’t show these fissures. Instead, Stipe’s lyrics are inward-looking and meticulous, loaded with striking abstract imagery (“Aluminum, tastes like fear/Adrenaline, it pulls us near,” from “E-Bow the Letter”) and songs that grapple with identity, geography and finding a place in the world.
“New Test Leper” is a deeply moving song describing a sincere guest being shut down while trying to put their authentic self forward on a tabloid talk show; “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” obliquely addresses historical turmoil that helped shape the country’s direction; and “Electrolite” uses a backdrop of Los Angeles to ruminate on the passage of time and endings.
Unlike other deluxe R.E.M. reissues, the second disc doesn’t have an era-appropriate live show; after all, the band didn’t actually tour behind New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Instead, in keeping with the commitment to documenting the album’s lifespan, the bonus tracks include live tracks from 1995's Monster tour—where New Adventures came together—as well as b-sides, alternate versions, and covers. For die-hards, having these extra tracks in one place, rather than scattered across CD singles or long-lost downloaded MP3s, is a plus; for the unfamiliar, these extras help flesh out the main album’s contours.
Rawer takes on the murky “Undertow” and the jagged “Departure” illustrate what a great live band R.E.M. was in the mid-1990s, while shedding light on New Adventures In Hi-Fi’s immediacy. Organ-heavy live versions of “The Wake-Up Bomb” and “Binky The Doormat” possess freewheeling, glitter-glam hearts, and serve as a bridge from Monster to the new era. And a delicate alternate take on “Leave” removes the siren-like keyboard and replaces it with a moody, percussion-spackled ambient backdrop. The somber vibe underscores the song’s deep longing and New Adventures In Hi-Fi’s brittle poignancy.
The bonus covers, which owe more to the duskier shades of 1992's Automatic For The People than other eras, are even more intriguing. An easygoing, twangy “Wall of Death”—originally found on the Richard Thompson tribute Beat The Retreat—plus a laid-back, faithful spin through Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” illuminate the band’s ease slipping into the folk and country realm. A cover of Athens songwriter Vic Chesnutt’s “Sponge,” meanwhile, deserves a brighter spotlight: It taps into the desolation within Chesnutt’s original—the title refers to “the world” being a sponge, as though someone is being weighed down by life—and adds droning, stormy guitars for extra tumult.
Even though the band didn’t realize it at the time, New Adventures In Hi-Fi signified the closing of a chapter. Bill Berry left the band a year later, which changed R.E.M.’s live approach and irrevocably altered its creative process. In America, musical trends shifted, and the kind of enigmatic, offbeat rock music heard on New Adventures In Hi-Fi fell out of favor to nü-metal, and later the garage rock revival.
Yet New Adventures In Hi-Fi is a farewell written without the burden of an ending. The album doesn’t dwell on the past; it just processes how humans move forward, and embrace what’s next as major life changes are occurring. A fascinating chronicle, New Adventures is finally—and rightfully—taking its place as one of R.E.M.’s best, most consistent works.