As the last album to feature founding member and drummer, Bill Berry, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, released in 1996, has the most diverse set of songs by R.E.M. The process of the album is unusual in that most the songs were written while R.E.M. was on tour for their 1994 album, Monster, and were recorded live with eight-track recorders. As a result, most of the album centralizes itself on themes of motion and travel. This album mixes the country sound found in their previous albums, Out of Time and Automatic for the People, with more of a rock feel found on Monster and Lifes Rich Pageant. I believe that although critics had mixed dispositions about the album, New Adventures in Hi Fi is one of R.E.M.’s best efforts, especially from the 1990s.
The album begins with the pleasant groove of “How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us”. This is probably the catchiest tune from the album with its highly recognizable and memorable piano staccato riff. Michael Stipe’s yell at the end of each chorus gives the song most of its power. The next song takes the listener to a fast pace run with “The Wake-Up Bomb”. It carries itself with a hard rock guitar riff. “New Test Leper” plays with religious themes with more of an acoustic sound. The band takes another turn to a light groove with “Undertow”. The bass carries this song as the guitar riff guides it towards its climatic chorus. This song also uses religious references that are subtle, in which Stipe contemplates about life. The chorus is surprisingly in a major key as Stipe yells “I’m drowning….” The most well-known song off this album is “E-Bow The Letter” and for a good reason. It is one of the most charming tracks from the album with Patti Smith featured as a guest vocalist behind Stipe’s echoes of sadness.
The next track, “Leave”, is a seven minute epic. It is also highly climatic from its soft acoustic guitar prelude to the loud and fluctuating keyboards. The chorus really captures Stipe’s sincere vocals in leaving behind his past. The album comes back to its upbeat rhythm with “Departure”. This song illuminates the bands travels while touring. The song with the most chord change is “Bittersweet Me”. Here, Stipe gives us his perfect dry vocals on desperate unsatisfaction. “Be Mine” is the softest track on the album. It features a light guitar riff that backs Stipe’s vocals on love in a relationship, giving all he has to that special someone. “Binky The Doormat” is arguably the weakest track. “Zither” is a fun and mellow instrumental with the use of strumming on an autoharp. It serves as an apt break between songs. “So Fast, So Numb” kicks off with a hard rock riff about drugs and living fast. “Low Desert” resembles a country rock feel, in which you can imagine yourself driving on a highway, listening to the album of course. The band closes off the album with guitarist, Peter Buck’s prominent banjo riffs in “Electrolite”. The violin and piano back this track as it finishes R.E.M.’s stream of excellence.
Several listeners, including myself, consider New Adventures in Hi-Fi a highly underrated album. This is likely due to the fact that most fans of the band waited for another mainstream album like Automatic for the People. This album requires a different approach to listening. Although the band’s usual sound is evident here, the album illustrates traits of exploration in terms of musicality and lyrics. There are a wide range of sounds on this album that cannot be found on any other R.E.M. release. There are a few additional factors that make this album admirable and desirable. This was the last album to feature drummer Bill Berry. This was a significant turn for the band since Berry contributed to the music overall. After New Adventures in Hi-Fi, R.E.M. took a different direction in their music. Another factor that is important to note is that this album can be appreciated more since the official break-up of R.E.M in late 2011. As a casual listener, the sudden end to this band made me look back and truly listen to the band’s catalogue and examine all the layers that went into them. This has certainly become one of my favorite R.E.M. albums, which I overlooked in the past.