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Music / New Adventures in Hi-Fi

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"I look up, and what do you see? All of you and all of me."
New Adventures in Hi-Fi, released in 1996 through Warner (Bros.) Records, is the tenth studio album by American Alternative Rock band R.E.M.. Released in the wake of the backlash to their controversial grunge experiment Monster, the album presents a middle ground between the hard, distorted sound of its 1994 predecessor and the band's more traditional Jangle Pop. This compromise was largely the result of the album being written and recorded during the band's tour for Monster in 1995, with studio overdubs added later on. The decision to do this was influenced by the production processes for both Neil Young's Time Fades Away and Radiohead's The Bends; Radiohead were previously R.E.M.'s supporting act during the Monster tour. Also fitting the Young influences, the album incorporates elements of Alternative Country, paying homage to the band's southern background.

New Adventures in Hi-Fi marked the End of an Era for R.E.M. in multiple ways. First and foremost, it was their last album with drummer Bill Berry, who amicably departed from the band and retired from the music industry altogether in October of 1997, shortly after sessions for their next album, Up, began. Berry's decision to retire was due to a combination of factors, namely health concerns caused by the near-fatal brain aneurysm he suffered on-stage during the Monster tour, burnout with performing and traveling, and a desire to start a new chapter in his life while he was still young enough to do so. He would ultimately become a hay farmer in his home state of Georgia, only sporadically returning to the band for occasional one-off performances and not returning to the music industry until 2022. Rather than see R.E.M. dissolve, Berry urged his former bandmates to continue as a trio; Up would ultimately be completed without Berry's involvement, and R.E.M. would utilize various session drummers in Berry's place before settling on Bill Rieflin as a de-facto replacement in 2003. However, they would officially remain a trio until their breakup in 2011.

Secondly, the album was the band's last collaboration with Scott Litt, who had been their main producer since Document in 1987; Litt decided to break off his professional relationship with R.E.M., also on amicable terms, to start his own record label, Outpost Recordsnote . Thirdly, the album was the last the band made under the wing of longtime manager Jefferson Holt, who the band fired later that year following allegations that Holt had sexually harassed members of their support staff. Lastly, the album was the band's last on their original 5-record contract with Warner (Bros.) Records; they would sign onto a new 5-album deal shortly after for a reported $80 million, which rumors touted as the most expensive contract ever signed up to that point. Following this album, R.E.M. would be a very different entity in the years ahead.

New Adventures in Hi-Fi was supported by four singles: "E-Bow the Letter", "Bittersweet Me", "Electrolite", and "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us".


Hi Side
  1. "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us" (4:31)
  2. "The Wake-Up Bomb" (5:08)
  3. "New Test Leper" (5:26)
  4. "Undertow" (5:09)
  5. "E-Bow the Letter" (5:23)
  6. "Leave" (7:18)

Fi Side

  1. "Departure" (3:28)
  2. "Bittersweet Me" (4:06)
  3. "Be Mine" (5:32)
  4. "Binky the Doormat" (5:01)
  5. "Zither" (2:33)
  6. "So Fast, So Numb" (4:12)
  7. "Low Desert" (3:30)
  8. "Electrolite" (4:05)

Your tropes eclipsed the moon tonight:

  • Alliterative Title: "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us" and "So Fast, So Numb".
  • Book Ends: Given the album's status as the End of an Era— in more ways than one— that stretched all the way back to the band's first album in 1983, it's only fitting that New Adventures in Hi-Fi similarly features cover art consisting solely of the band name and album title atop a landscape photo (the fact that New Adventures had a Deliberately Monochrome photo also compliments the limited-color nature of the Murmur cover photo).
  • Breather Episode: Compared to most of the rest of the album, "Be Mine" is a far calmer and more lighthearted song, both musically and lyrically, being something of a love song lullaby that just happens to be backed by distorted guitars.
  • Celebrity Elegy: "E-Bow the Letter" is one for Michael Stipe's friend River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose in 1993; the song's lyrics stem from a letter Stipe had written to Phoenix but never sent.
  • Celebrity Is Overrated: The central theme of "E-Bow the Letter", largely influenced by River Phoenix's death three years earlier.
  • Color Motifs: The band departs from their typical association with yellow by going with... the complete absence of color, specifically black. Not only are the album cover and liner notes Deliberately Monochrome, but the CD label consists of a small black ring in the center of the disc and the disc tray on the jewel case is the same opaque black kind that was standard for CDs between the format's introduction in 1982 and the mass adoption of clear trays in 1995.
  • Concept Album: As noted in the 25th anniversary edition's liner notes, every track on the album centers around a desire for escape, be it from a location or a personal predicament, fitting its recording during the world tour for Monster.
  • Darker and Edgier: Much of the album is more moody and melancholic in tone— both musically and lyrically— compared to the sardonic Monster just before it, and touches on even darker subject matter than that album did; among other topics, the album features songs about homophobia, grief, disillusionment with America, and overall uncertainty.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The album art on both the cover and liner notes consists of various monochrome photos of the band and the California desert.
  • Dramatic Irony: "E-Bow the Letter", which is based on a letter Michael Stipe wrote to River Phoenix but never sent, features the lines "Will you live to 83? Will you ever welcome me? Will you show me something that nobody else has seen?" The inclusion of these lines hinges on the listener's knowledge that Phoenix had died of a drug overdose at just 23 between the letter's creation and the song's release, making the answer to all of those questions a tragic "no."
  • Epic Rocking: "Leave" clocks in at 7:18, making it the single-longest song in the R.E.M. discography. The album also deserves special mention: at 65:33, it stands as the longest record that the band ever put out.
  • End of an Era:
    • R.E.M.'s last album with Bill Berry, Scott Litt, and Jefferson Holt, three figures who were crucial to the band during their lifetime up to this point.
    • On a more unusual note, this is also the last R.E.M. album to not feature the lyrics to each song printed in the liner notes. Green from 1988 had previously included the lyrics to "World Leader Pretend" and nothing else apart from artwork, but starting with the album after this one, 1998's Up, every R.E.M. record would include the lyrics for every song in the liner notes. This more or less marked the definitive end of the band's image as a somewhat insular group, casting away this last trace of obscurity for them.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: "E-Bow the Letter", as the name indicates, prominently features Peter Buck playing the guitar with an E-bow and uses lyrics taken from an unsent letter Michael Stipe had written to River Phoenix before the latter's untimely death.
  • Foreshadowing: "Leave" features a synthesized siren (made by having Scott McCaughey hold a single note on an ARP Odyssey while wiggling the pitch bender) blaring throughout most of the track, hinting at the band's incorporation of electronic elements into their sound in 1998-2004.
  • Gayngst: "New Test Leper" is about a gay man with AIDS who goes on a talk show hoping to promote acceptance and is humiliated because of the homomisic studio audience and channel executives.
  • Great American Novel: The narrator of "The Wake-Up Bomb" mentions having to write it, among the myriad of other things they needed to do.
  • Grief Song: "E-Bow the Letter" is an expression of mourning for the late River Phoenix, a close friend of Stipe.
  • Heavy Meta: "The Wake-Up Bomb" is a Glam Rock song about how cool the Glam Rock era was.
  • Hidden Track: The CD version includes a short instrumental in the pre-gap before "Leave"— it's just a minute of the verse riff for "Leave" itself played at a slower tempo and re-arranged for acoustic guitar and keyboard, so it's really an introduction to "Leave" rather than it's own song. Digital versions of the album don't separate the intro from the rest of the song.
  • Hong Kong Dub: The "English dub" for the fake Italian film in the "Bittersweet Me" video is intentionally out of sync with the actors' lips, to a deliberately glaring degree, riffing on the shaky quality of dubs for foreign works imported on a budget.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Cassette releases divide the album between a "Hi Side" and a "Fi Side". The double-LP release, meanwhile, simply uses standard numbers for each of the four sides.
  • Instrumental: "Zither"
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: The opening lines from "New Test Leper" feature the narrator describing how even though he's not a Christian, he still considers Jesus' teachings relevant and progressive, especially in the face of an audience that despises him for being a gay man with AIDS.
  • Lyrical Cold Open: "The Wake-Up Bomb" and "New Test Leper" both feature Stipe hitting the ground running with his vocals.
  • Minimalistic Cover Art: Simply the band name and album title over a photo of the sparse California desert. The CD art is even more minimalist, being limited to a small black ring with the band name, album title, and copyright information in the center of the label, which is otherwise completely blank. International CD labels are even sparser, featuring just the text printed around the center hub.
  • Mood Whiplash: New Adventures in Hi-Fi opens with the jazz-inspired "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us", a super-mellow, super-somber Alternative Country track with Mike Mills playing a meandering piano solo in the middle. Immediately following this is "The Wake-Up Bomb", a high-octane, fast-paced Glam Rock track. Immediately following this is the largely-acoustic laid-back Jesus Was Way Cool track "New Test Leper"... let's just say that New Adventures in Hi-Fi is an album rife with these.
  • Motor Mouth: Michael Stipe indulges in this trope once again on "Departure", prattling off the lyrics to the verses; however, unlike previous examples, he is noticeably slower in tempo and places much more emphasis on enunciation, making it easier to keep track of what he's saying.
  • Musical Pastiche: According to Mike Mills, the piano solo in "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us" was inspired by both the works of Thelonious Monk and Mike Garson's piano playing on the Title Track of David Bowie's Aladdin Sane.
  • New Sound Album: Shifting away from the outright grunge of Monster in favor of a middle ground between that album and the band's prior Warner-era albums, with a good deal of Alternative Country elements thrown into the mix.
  • Non-Appearing Title: "New Test Leper" and "Binky the Doormat" lack any mention of the title phrases, though the terms "leper" and "doormat" do appear throughout the respective songs' choruses. "Low Desert" also counts as this, and doesn't have any words or phrases in its lyrics that match the song title to boot.
  • One-Word Title: "Undertow", "Leave", "Departure", "Zither", and "Electrolite".
  • Other Common Music Video Concepts: The video for "E-Bow the Letter" is partly an example of the "Travelogue Video" variant mixed with a Performance Video, featuring Patti Smith traveling around Prague, intercut with footage of R.E.M. performing in a sparsely-lit studio in Los Angeles.
  • Performance Video: The "New Test Leper" video consists of footage of the band performing the song in the studio, while "Bittersweet Me" features the band badly miming along to the song (and intentionally so), intercut with scenes from a fictional Italian film.
  • Protest Song: "New Test Leper" is one towards homomisia and stigmatization of AIDS patients, especially when those who espouse such hate use the Bible to justify it.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: According to Michael Stipe, the lyrics to "New Test Leper" were inspired by a talk show he saw where a trans woman was brought on just to be humiliated by the host and audience.
    "It was painful to watch her basically humiliated simply by the decision to be on the show. And with commercial breaks. I couldn't imagine what was said when they were off camera. Glaring horrible studio lighting."
  • Record Producer: The sixth and final R.E.M. album to be produced by Scott Litt, who was stepping down to focus on starting his own record label, Outpost Records.
  • Sensory Abuse: "Leave" features a distorted, siren-like loop that starts playing about a minute into the song and plays continuously for about the next six minutes, at which point the song is nearly over. It's not mixed too loudly though, and the song seems purposely structured in such a way that you repeatedly forget the siren noise is there until suddenly there's a breakdown where you hear nothing but drums and sirens.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Tying in with its nature as a tribute to Glam Rock, "The Wake-Up Bomb" namedrops Queen and T-Rex in quick succession in the second variant of the chorus. The second verse additionally nods to the Hillside Singers' "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)", with the narrator claiming that they themselves had to achieve this exact thing "by the age of 21" (incidentally the same age Michael Stipe was when R.E.M. released their debut single, "Radio Free Europe").
    • "New Test Leper" features the narrator seeing the phrase "I AM NOT AN ANIMAL" mockingly subtitled beneath him on the television screen when he attempts to help the talk show host and studio audience understand his situation as a gay man with AIDS.
    • "Departure" includes the lyric "win a eulogy from William Greider," referencing an author and journalist known for writing about economics. Michael Stipe was asked about the line in a Rolling Stone interviewnote , and admitted he just mentioned the writer because he needed a rhyme with "hang-glider" and "spider".
    • "Electrolite" namedrops Martin Sheen, Steve McQueen, and James Dean, all of whom had starred in at least one movie that prominently features motoring over the course of their careers (tying in with the earlier mention of Mulholland Drive).
    • "Binky the Doormat" takes its title from the Bobcat Goldthwait film Shakes the Clown; a character named "Binky the Clown" self-deprecatingly refers to himself by that name in one scene. Coincidentally, Shakes the Clown was distributed by the film division of I.R.S. Records, R.E.M.'s old label.
  • Show Within a Show: A fake Italian film called Stanco e Nudo (Tired and Naked, after a line in the chorus) serves as the framing device for the "Bittersweet Me" video, playing in the background of the band's Stylistic Suck performance with occasional cuts to the content within.
  • Special Guest: American punk icon Patti Smith, who had been a major influence on R.E.M. since their formation in 1980, provides backing vocals on "E-Bow the Letter". Live performances would typically feature various other guest vocalists (most notably Thom Yorke, a personal friend of Michael Stipe) singing Smith's vocals depending on the show.
  • Stylistic Suck: The band's miming in the "Bittersweet Me" video is intentionally poor and out-of-sync with the music track, fitting the Hong Kong Dub of the fake Italian film that acts as a framing device.
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: New Adventures in Hi-Fi, an album that otherwise ranges from sarcastic to downright moody, closes with "Electrolite", an uncharacteristically mellow love song.
  • Surreal Music Video: "Electrolite" received one directed by Spike Jonze, helped along by inverted camera work, fisheye lenses, figures changing size, and other such tricks.
  • Talk Show Appearance: "New Test Leper" is about a gay man with AIDS who goes on a talk show in the 1980s in the hope of creating empathy, and is humiliated by the homophobic host and channel executives. According to Michael Stipe, the song was inspired by a real talk show he saw where a similar series of events happened to a trans woman on live TV.
  • Unreplaced Departed: The band continued as a trio after drummer Bill Berry left in 1997, hiring session drummers for their albums and tours and eventually settling on Bill Rieflin (but never actually inducting him as an official member) until the band's break-up in 2011.