If any album in modern history has been let down by the choice of singles released from it, it is ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’. Here’s a record which, in hindsight, has become something of a cult favourite. Michael Stipe says it’s his favourite of all R.E.M. albums, Mike Mills includes it in his top 3. Retrospective reviewers of it regularly speak of it extremely favourably, even more so than those at the time of release did, and even then it received more than its fair share of praise. It’s right up there on my personal list of faves too. Over the intervening 25 years, I’ve become even more fond of it. (JC adds……I’ve long-named it as my favourite of all the R.E.M. albums)
And yet, to many, it’s a forgotten album. Well, forgotten to those who knew about it at the time, anyway. Why? Well, in my view, it was chronically undersold. OK, it’s a tad long, but that aside, it has some of the band’s finest songs of their Warner Bros. period. Yet when it came to promotion, it was left floundering. There was never going to be a tour – the Monster tour completely drained the band, to the extent that it nearly killed one of its members and the band came very close to breaking up in its aftermath. So it was left to radio play to help sell it. And with so many great songs, that would be a piece of cake right? So what happened?
I should point out, lead single E-Bow The Letter is a fabulous track, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t sound like anything else the band ever made, despite sounding exactly how an R.E.M. song should sound. Secondly, it featured long-time friend (and major influence on both Stipe and Buck) Patti Smith on vocals. That latter point is enough in itself to make E-Bow a classic. But can anyone honestly, honestly say that E-Bow The Letter, as brilliant as it is, is really a single? And the lead single from a new album at that? Honestly?
Lyrically, the song is about what Stipe describes as a “letter never sent” to his recently deceased friend River Phoenix. It’s full of dark imagery and tension; yearning and regret. There are references to fame, drugs, alcohol, fear. On the surface, it sounds like stream-of-consciousness, but study those words and you can tell they are very carefully constructed. It‘s beautiful, but heavily doused in horror and sorrow.
But it’s the backing track that really makes E-Bow so special. There’s a lot of praise for Mike Mills’ bassline with many citing it as one of his very best. Buck’s use of the e-bow to create the ominous drone that drives the song is the big selling point here. It’s one of his most unique contributions, setting the mood for the song and allowing the emotion of Stipe’s vocal to become highlighted when set against it. To me, this song sounds a bit like a cross between two of Out Of Time’s best songs – Belong and Country Feedback. It actually sounds like neither, yet you can’t deny the similarities. But, sadly, New Adventures would never receive the commercial acclaim of that earlier record.
Perhaps rather incongruously, E-Bow The Letter became the band’s highest-charting single at the time, entering the UK charts at #4 in its first week (it also made top 10 in Ireland, Iceland, Canada, Norway and Poland). A feat perhaps, but by week two it plummeted out of the top 20 altogether, proof if any were needed that the fans were buying it in droves, but few others were interested.
In the UK, vinyl was practically dead by this time, so no 7” or 12” formats were commercially issued here (though I do have a 7” produced for jukeboxes). Instead there was a two-track cassette featuring this instrumental recorded, like many of NAIHF’s tracks, live during a soundcheck whilst on the Monster tour:
mp3: R.E.M. – Tricycle
It’s a surfy guitar-led track in the vein of Rotary 10 and Rotary 11, and in total contrast to the a-side is upbeat. Certainly not the worst instrumental b-side of the band’s career, but nothing to write home about either.
There were also two CD singles issued, one of which was labelled as a “collector’s edition”. Bizarrely, both had identical content, the differences purely being the packaging (the collector’s edition was housed in a jewel case with a four-page insert as opposed to the standard slim case and j-card insert). As well as E-Bow and Tricycle, two additional tracks were included. Departure was to appear on the then-forthcoming album, but the single included a rollicking live version which I really like.
A cover of Richard & Linda Thompson’s Wall Of Death rounded things off. Originally released on the Richard Thompson tribute album Beat The Retreat in 1994, it kind of languished unnoticed by most until this single. I really do like the original, but (and I know I’m risking a thumping from the folkie purists here) I actually prefer R.E.M.’s countrified version here. One of their better covers I reckon.
The release of ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ revealed R.E.M. had probably made one of their very best albums, bursting at the seams with good songs. Obviously, they were saving its best track for the next single, right?