One day in 2004, I took R.E.M.‘s 1994 album Monster off the shelf and played it for several weeks. Because it had lain dormant in my CD rack for a decade before I rediscovered it, I always think Monster is from 2004 and that New Adventures in Hi-Fi, released in September of 1996, preceded it. I also probably get the chronology mixed up because New Adventures was a return to form of sorts. But we can’t get there from here – first, we have to take a detour through Monster.
It’s not just that Monster was out of time (to coin a phrase) in my mind; the record was a marked departure for the band. A bombastic foray into grungey glam, Monster was a swerve from Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992), two albums of upbeat, danceable pop paired with lush, mournful ballads. Monster also represented a shift lyrically, to the point that R.E.M. almost stopped sounding like a band made up of four equal and independent members and started sounding like Michael Stipe and his backing band. The first-person pronoun, which had only occasionally surfaced in previous releases – and was indeed willfully left out – was now front and center in songs like “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” and “I Took Your Name”.
Until Monster, Stipe had avoided autobiographical or seemingly autobiographical lyrics in favor of impressionistic word association. If they were discernible at all, the lyrics gave the three-piece band a fourth sonic texture. The rhyme and timbre of the words, and the feeling they evoked, were as crucial as any literal meaning, which was often inscrutable or outright nonsensical. Even when Stipe’s vocals were brought forward in the mix, beginning with Life’s Rich Pageant in 1986, the lyrics represented a more collective point of view than a first-person one. (Think “Let’s begin again” and “What if we give it away?”) Before Monster, the general feeling was everybody hurts, not just the narrator.
As a writer, it’s weird to admit this, but I don’t usually pay attention to lyrics. I respond more strongly to music than to words. Certain intervals and chord changes can bring me to tears, even if the text that accompanies them is a reading of someone’s grocery list. In researching this article, I was surprised but not particularly troubled to find I’d been singing a host of misheard lyrics since 1983, which, in fairness, is easy to do with early R.E.M. Besides, I think “I like it here” makes more sense in a song called “Sitting Still”, than the phrase “I can hear.” But I digress.
Given my ambivalence toward lyrics, I figured the shift to the first person must have been significant for me to notice it at all. So to support my assertion, I turned to the Internet. With the help of The Complete R.E.M. Lyrics Archive and the “find” function in my word processor, I performed a highly scientific (not) analysis of the lyrics for a handful of R.E.M. albums through the years. Here are my findings:
- Murmur, the band’s 1983 full-length debut contains 12 songs, with the word “I” appearing 25 times (the aforementioned refrain from “Sitting Still” accounts for 12 of those).
- Life’s Rich Pageant’s 11 songs contain 63 instances of “I” (does not include the “Superman” cover)
- Automatic for the People is nearly the same, with 64 “I”’s over its 11 songs.
- Monster sees the pronoun’s use more than double, to 137 instances of “I” in 12 songs. That’s more than 11 per song. Moreover, the first word sung in four of the album’s 12 songs is “I” or some form of it (e.g., I’ll or I’m), and nearly one-quarter of the album’s lines begin with the word.
I draw no conclusions as to the reason for this textual turn towards the personal. Stipe may have been feeling more confessional, or egotistical, or just felt like inhabiting various personae. Perhaps none of the songs are actually biographical, and he’s merely creating characters and inventing narratives. But it’s no mystery that by 1994 the pop music landscape, part of which R.E.M. had helped create, was changing. Grunge from the northwest and Britpop from England dominated the airwaves at the time, and R.E.M., always students of the form, were inspired to exchange their mandolins for wah-wah pedals and create a full-on rock album in response. Not only did they look towards the glam rockers of their youth, such as T Rex, Iggy Pop, and Slade, they infused Monster with elements of grunge from the likes of their friend Kurt Cobain.
The harder-edged music on Monster still doesn’t explain the lyrical shift, but Stipe offers some insight in response to a fan question on Matthew Perpetua’s Pop Songs 07-08 blog: “I think mostly it was just an attempt to match the sound of the music…I really pushed the production to be over the top and strong, and I wanted the imagery to be almost cartoonish. Exactly different from the two records flanking this one.”
So maybe that’s it. Rock is more individualistic, and the folk-tinged music R.E.M. was playing before Monster has its roots in community and collective action. Stipe, ever enigmatic, doesn’t give us more than that to go by. So let’s move on, at last, to New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
A good deal of New Adventures was recorded on the road during the Monster tour of 1995. The band traveled with a mobile recording truck to capture the new songs live on stage and during sound-checks. Those recordings were later finessed in the studio. The result is an album of road songs, but not ones that fall into the usual head-out-on-the-highway-born-to-be-wild clichés. Instead, the songs on New Adventures are primarily about grief and longing, pushing forward, and finding the way through.
The album opens with the brooding “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us”, a slow but insistent song featuring an Ennio Morricone-flavored piano motif and off-kilter chords as a bridge. The song seems to reflect on the spoils of winning, whether it’s the nation’s manifest destiny or that of a band. By 1995 R.E.M. had conquered the world a few times over, but at what price? That year’s tour is notorious for being the one on which three of the band’s members fell seriously ill, the most critical being drummer Bill Berry’s on-stage collapse from a brain aneurism. Stipe’s “Ahh” at the end of the chorus feels like the frustrating sound somebody makes when everything is just too much for words.
“Wake Up Bomb” would be right at home on Monster, with its references to glam and 1973. The first-person pronoun is also prominent, with the song’s petulant but disaffected protagonist embodying the excesses of the late 20th century. However, the music is leaden. With every instrument taking up equal space, there’s not much room for each one to shine or even breathe.
The album continues apace, alternating songs that sound very much like pre-Monster R.E.M. and others that take the grunge-glam thing a step further. Some tracks hardly sound like the band at all. “Low Desert” is one of those. It’s a straight-ahead rocker with guitar fuzz that could have been lifted from an early Pearl Jam record. “Undertow”, which was recorded live and retains the spontaneity of the concert hall (or arena, in R.E.M.’s case), isn’t much different; the only thing that distinguishes it as R.E.M. is Mike Mills’ backing vocal. “Leave” is another. The first 60 seconds lull the listener with a gloomy acoustic guitar, only to switch to a stabbing siren riff throughout the tune. The effect is mercifully brought down in the mix as the song goes on, but it takes stamina to get through it. It’s like a loud mosquito buzzing around your ear – you keep swatting, but it won’t go away.
On the other hand, if you play “Electrolite” after “Nightswimming” (from Automatic for the People), you’ll almost think it’s the same song. The two are in the same key, have a similar piano riff, and both even have a few seconds of studio noodling before the music starts. “Departure” is an exuberant rocker with a catchy chorus, with a guitar that sounds like a sped-up, distorted version of the pattern in “Me In Honey.” Mills’ backing vocals are also reminiscent of the Out of Time track.
“E-Bow the Letter”, which was the first single off the album, is worth the price of admission alone. Gorgeous in its simplicity, with a dizzying yet understated guitar drone, the song is dark and hypnotic but urgent at the same time. Like “Country Feedback” from Out of Time, the track is named for its dominant guitar technique. But where the singer on “Country Feedback” sounds defeated and resigned, on “E-Bow”, he has a cynical edge.
Stipe confirms as much on the Pop Songs 07-08 blog: “Ebow, of course, became the teenage swirl of confusion and endless possibility, country feedback the final sentence at the end of a particularly bad relationship.” His vocal on “E-Bow” is emphatic and melancholic. When it intertwines with Patti Smith’s penetrating counter-melody, the two combine for a seductive and threatening feeling. An acoustic hook behind the chorus keeps the song anchored, something familiar to hang onto amid the confusion. Moody and nuanced, loose but sophisticated, “E-Bow the Letter” encapsulates the best of R.E.M.
Monster may have been a deviation for the band, but so was New Adventures in Hi-Fi. R.E.M. always sought to challenge themselves. By writing and recording during what would prove to be a most arduous tour, they rose to the occasion. Even though it bears more resemblance to the band’s early 1990s output, New Adventures, an album filled with travel imagery, might be better thought of as a course correction. Always looking forward, they were not ones to go too far afield and reinvent the band with every album, but rather strove to be a better version of themselves with each release. And from that lofty goal, there is no going back.
NOTE: The 25th-anniversary reissue of New Adventures in Hi-Fi releases on 29 October. It will include the remastered album, a second disc of B-sides and rarities, promotional films, and an electronic press kit.