R.E.M. has reached that zenith of supergroup super-ness that allows a band to create a completely new sound for each album, satisfying its by now numb zombie-fans and hooking in new ones. New Adventures in HiFi, R.E.M.'s latest, is millennia away from the hipness of Monster, substituting rock'n'roll swagger for the earlier album's cyber cool. The departure is so extreme, and the change in genre so overt, that one can't help sensing some irony in this flavor-of-the-week from everyone's favorite emperors of alternative ice cream.
The first few tracks are rock'n'roll, plain and simple. "How the West Was Won and What it Got Us" has the over-produced slickness of, say, an INXS song; Stipe's voice even has a touch of Michael Hutcheson's throaty howl. Yet "West" succeeds by relying on its lazy seductiveness and evoking the bleary, muted resentment of the afternoon after the morning after.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the bland "Wake-Up Bomb," which seems rife with the trappings of mid-80s rock and roll. "Wake-Up Bomb" packs on the weight of conventional, driving guitar chords, predictable drum patterns, and, deadliest of all, the title sung over and over again as the chorus, a la "Everybody Wang Chung Tonight." A later track, "Bittersweet Me," has the spastic energy, not to mention the intro rhythms and chords, of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up."
Even the tracks which don't project the guitar-heavy brashness of corn-belt rock'n'roll heroes fit neatly into other cliches of popular music. The third track, "New Test Leper," is a low key ballad complete with the type of jangly acoustic guitar which seems to typify radio candy marketed towards teenage girls. On this track, and on the ballad "Be Mine," Stipe's voice takes on the sticky sweetness one would expect from Evan Dando, and his lyrics the groveling desperation of Matthew Sweet: "I want to be your Christmas tree...."
The relentless poppiness of much of the album begins to seem ironic when juxtaposed with such truly innovative, unnerving songs as the fifth track, "E-bow the Letter." This song is brimming over with lyrics; words literally spill from line to line. Stipe mesmerizingly free associates about how he can't understand "the star-thing," which seems to refer to the way young kids get fixated on their media heroes. "E-bow" has weight enough to cast the more poppy songs on the album into perspective; in the context of this song, all the various pop genres toyed with on the album, from record-company-Romeo to hard-living-guitar-god, seem purposefully overt and artificial.
Themes of fantasy and insincerity are evident on other tracks as well. A frustrated, angry defensiveness underscores these songs, which, like "E-bow," are among the more successful on the album. "So Fast, So Numb" projects a convincing exasperation with a deluded second person, imploring "This is now! This is here! This is me!" "Electrolite" snidely comments on the slippery and ultimately minimal value of fame: "I'm Steve McQueen/I'm Jimmy Dean/You are the star tonight." That this refusnik sensibility might be the expression of the band's own attitude is teasingly suggested by the song's final line, which is also the final lyric on the album: "I'm outta here."
One reason the issue of persona and role-playing becomes oddly important on this album is the extreme emphasis placed on Stipe's voice. Most songs seem engineered so as to push Stipe's vocals right up to the front of the music, with the instrumentals forming a more distant, solid layer of background noise. Stipe's style and diction has also changed somewhat from previous albums. He sports a breathy, melodic fullness, especially on the single "E-bow the Letter," which is a departure from the stylized, wavery thinness on which his career was built. Certain pronunciations also seem peculiar, even to the point of suggesting a regional accent. It's as if the listener is meant to become confused as to who is singing each successive song.
If all this precocious thumbing of noses at the industry that made them millionaires can be tolerated, R.E.M.'s New Adventures in HiFi is a complex and layered album. And, yes, some of the songs have that trademark R.E.M. neat-and-tidy quality which promises much radio airplay. The album doesn't feel as innovative as Monster, musically speaking, but as the most recent footprint left by a band with seven-league boots, New Adventures in HiFi is inevitably fascinating.
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