When New Adventures In Hi-Fi was initially released in 1996, I dismissed it, almost immediately. I already had R.E.M. fatigue – between the preciousness of Automatic For The People, which I hated, and the pomposity of Monster, I loathed the band that I loved from the moment I heard “Wolves, Lower” in late summer, 1982. I felt they’d become U2 – who I detested – and I turned my back on them. I had just begun working for Atlantic Records (a division of Warner Music Group, like R.E.M.’s label, Warner Bros.) when this album came out – we were taken to a Warner Music presentation for the fall’s upcoming releases and sure enough, New Adventures… was one of the highlights – and it irritated me.

The day the album was released, I was having lunch with two of the art directors (I worked in Atlantic’s Creative Services department) when one of the other directors came bouncing in with New Adventures… in hand, which he’d just gotten from one of the people at Warner Bros. He put it on, excitedly, and halfway through the first track, I said “please turn that crap off” – he looked crestfallen and, in hindsight, it was a stupidly thoughtless thing to say (as he was one of the loveliest people there and became a good friend as time went by) and a complete dick move. But it was R.E.M. and I hated them for (what I considered) their rock-star betrayal. I’d heard the annoying “The Wake-Up Bomb” nearly a year before on an MTV award show and couldn’t stand the continued cock-rock/glam-bullshit posturings they’d started on Monster; “E-Bow The Letter” had begun video rotation and I thought it was boring, dirge-y garbage and I was still in that arrogant, uni-dimensional mindset of “if I don’t think it’s worth the time, then it’s absolute shit because I’m never wrong”.

The album wound up being forgotten fairly quickly – I caught a snippet of “Electrolite” later on – and the only talk of R.E.M. during that period – in the aftermath of its release – was the fact that Warner Bros. had foolishly re-signed the band for $80 million dollars – they were on a downward trajectory and less than a year later, drummer Bill Berry left the group.

Fast forward to 2010; I was going through an emotionally difficult period and music was one way to deal with what was happening. I began re-visiting R.E.M.’s entire catalog, as I wound up buying everything to that point that I’d ignored – from New Adventures… to Accelerate – and it was then I started to have a revelation and a re-think about New Adventures In Hi-Fi and its quality. Simply put, my re-evaluation is this:

1. It was, without doubt, the best thing they’d done in the 23 years they were on Warner Bros., through to their break-up in 2011. Yes, they had a few songs here and there (“Me In Honey” and “Texarkana” come to mind), but this album is glorious, start to finish.
2. It was the “mature” R.E.M. at the height of their creative powers. They grew up and – I forgot – so did we, since I had been immature about it.
3. It was their most cohesive work since Fables Of The Reconstruction.
4. In the R.E.M. canon, after Fables…, Chronic Town, Murmur and Reckoning, it’s my favorite.

So now, 25 years later, Craft Recordings, who have taken over the band’s Warner Bros.-era catalog have released the anniversary edition of this often misunderstood album. As bassist Mike Mills had said, people thought it was a live record or “knockoffs” – no one knew what to make of it. It suffered. But like so many other great works, time has been very good to it and the reappraisals are coming in. And time is a key factor – this is one of the few R.E.M. albums that has aged well.

I’m going to skip reviewing the 2nd disc of outtakes, B-sides and rarities as they’re enjoyable but that isn’t my focus. This is my redemption review, since I didn’t give the album a chance back then and because I never got to write about it before.

You know a song is good when you find yourself inadvertently humming it out of nowhere – such is the case with the first track, “How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us”, which has a wonderfully subtle hook with its bass line and catchy chorus. It’s not an uptempo pop song, either – it’s a slow groove, but it stays with you. “New Test Leper” is one of the most obtusely eloquent pieces R.E.M. ever committed to tape, with its cold open of “I can’t say that I love Jesus/that would be a hollow claim…” and layer upon layer of melody, which builds to a beautiful crescendo. “Departure” rocks hard with a simple musical structure and slightly-obscured vocals, but it works. “Zither” is a perfect, sweet and short instrumental that’s as embracing as it’s gently beautiful. “Binky The Doormat” is about as wry and as pissed-off as R.E.M. could deliver a track and “Electrolite” is a superb closer – it’s got the “classic” R.E.M. sound to it, although its driven by a piano, rather than Peter Buck’s guitar arpeggios. But my personal favorite – and the album’s standout – is “Bittersweet Me”. It’s all the elements of R.E.M. over the years but updated, jaded, tired and naked (*wink*) – at that moment. It’s one of their greatest moments, bar none.

So with that said, I apologize to anyone I may have offended in the past with my stupidly arrogant proclamations and purist/asshole attitude. New Adventures In Hi-Fi is R.E.M.’s magnificent last stand (so to speak); it’s one of their best and it’s been given a new life with this reissue. Don’t miss your opportunity to finally figure it out, like I did.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

New Adventures In Hi-Fi is currently available in multiple formats

By Rob Ross

Rob Ross has been involved in the music industry for over 30 years - as guitarist/singer/songwriter with The Punch Line, freelance journalist, producer, manager and working for independent and major record labels. He resides in Staten Island, New York with his wife and cats; he works out a lot, reads voraciously, loves Big Star, traveling down South and his orange Gretsch. He's pretty groovy!

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