Though culling soundcheck recordings and impromptu studio jams from a whirlwind, year-long, worldwide tour might sound like a recipe for a sloppy album, this is most resoundingly not the case with R.E.M.'s latest effort, "New Adventures in Hi Fi". Of course, a little polishing from veteran producer Scott Litt (who has played an integral role in the band's last three releases) doesn't hurt; neither does the excellence of today's mixing and mastering technology, which can produce gems from recordings done in a hall closet. But these are minor quibbles, and none of them can take away the fact that this just might be one of the best records of R.E.M.'s career.
To judge from the songs, the hectic conditions under which this album was recorded (one of the tracks was cut in a dressing room) actually appears to have helped the collection; there's a loose, rolling rhthym on this record the likes of which hasn't been heard since 1986's "Lifes Rich Pageant". Far from sullying the work, the free, formless life of the road seems to have invested these tunes with a vitality that might have been stifled had they been subjected to a more careful, conventional, studio treatment. "Binky the Doormat," for example, has all the melody we've come to expect from the crown kings of power pop, but it also has a wild quality to it that comes out of the interplay of singer Michael Stipe's soaring vocals and the band's sonic attack. Where "Monster" was a self-conscious attempt at wild and unrestrained music through the magic of a beefed-up fuzz box, this album achieves wild and unrestrained music through, well, wild and unrestrained songs. In an era when many premier bands are spending small eternities entombed in recording studios, tracks like "Bittersweet Me," "So Fast, So Numb" and "Electrolite" have the almost archaic confidence of songs done by a group in one take, a group that said to hell with the overdubs.
Which is not to say that the album is without low points. Its opener, "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," for example, is way too ponderous and plodding for a starting track; worse, its befuddled sense of sadness and mysticism ("this story is a sad one, told many times") comes across as forced. Is it a tribute to an ecosystem and a frontier that has since been corrupted by westward industrial expansion, or simply a rambling morass of self-pity? Who can say? Stipe's lyrics are, at best, barely decipherable, and hence the listener must go on gut-level, moment-by-moment impressions to get a grip on it. "The Wake-Up Bomb," "Leave" and "Departure" are livelier, but again we find Stipe delivering the by-now de rigeur list of pop star complaints and wishesthe main one being a strong desire to escape the riches and attention he has, paradoxically enough, struggled so hard to acquire (are he and Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder locked in a duel to see who can outwhine the other?).
The real newsand the real triumphof this record, though, is that the rest of the band simply won't let itself sink into a pit of self-parody, despite Stipe's constant gripes. (Tellingly, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry have all remained noticeably quiet on the subject of how miserable it is to be rich and finanicially secure over the past few yearsthey, at least, seem to know a good thing when they see one.) "New Adventures in Hi Fi" is proof positive that making good music is still this Georgia quartet's first passion.
Upon further reflection, the editors decided to supplement this review with the following:
About a week after Jeff originally wrote this review, we were both still raving about this album, wondering if we shouldn't have given it five stars, or at least four and a half. Two weeks later we were wondering if we shouldn't have given it three. We felt that, in the long run, Stipe's bitching and moaning about being a rock star ("New Test Leper", "The Wake Up Bomb"which, incidentally, are musically two of the strongest tracks that R.E.M. has ever recorded) took away from the album to the extent that it made it almost unlistenable at times. Well, I have recently started listening to this album on a regular basis again, and I have to say that there's almost nothing that Stipe could do to take away from the overall force of this record.
This is without a doubt one of the strongest records released in the last year, and is certainly among the best work ever done by the band. Plus, many of the lyrics on this record show Stipe at his finest, creating perfect compliments to the music crafted by the rest of the band. Other than Stipe's whining in the two songs mentioned above (which is hardly noticeable in the deafening roar of "The Wake Up Bomb", and which can be easily overlooked in "New Test Leper" due to their subdued delivery), this album is virtually flawless, which is especially impressive considering both the conditions in which it was recorded (during sound checks on their Monster tour) and the fact that this band has been together so long. What other band do you know that's been together for twenty years and still seems to be at their peak? I'm not quite sure if I would revise the rating to a five star, but it certainly deserves the four that Jeff originally gave itmaybe even four and a half.