THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 30)

Continuing on from last week’s theme of New Adventures In Hi-Fi being R.E.M.’s most overlooked record – commercially, the backlash started here. It was becoming clear there wasn’t going to be another Losing My Religion anytime soon, and commercial radio stations and bandwagon-jumping casual fans were not going to be playing new R.E.M. records like they had for the previous few years (despite the fact the band had existed for 10 years and released 6 albums before LMR came out).

One theory about New Adventures’ failure to capture the general public’s imagination is that it was entirely deliberate, that the band was beginning to tire of the fame. The story goes that following the esoteric choice of first single E-Bow The Letter, Warners were pressing hard for The Wake-Up Bomb to be the follow-up. And they had a good point. It was one of the strongest, hardest-hitting songs on the album, one that the critics had almost universally picked up on as a highlight. Fans loved it too. It really was an obvious choice. But the band dug their heels in – they wanted a different track and they got their way. Bittersweet Me was released on 27th October 1996 to a general malaise.

mp3: R.E.M. – Bittersweet Me

I was nonplussed by the decision to release Bittersweet Me. I can name, off the top of my head, at least four songs that would have made better singles – the aforementioned Wake-Up Bomb, New Test Leper, Be Mine, and my favourite track from the album So Fast So Numb. Of the album’s 14 songs, Bittersweet Me would probably have been my 10th or 11th choice. To be fair, it’s not a terrible song like Sidewinder or some of the guff they would conjure up over the next decade, it’s just a bit, well… meh. Unremarkable. Pretty standard quietLOUDquiet 90s alt rock.

Throughout this series we’ve bitched and moaned about the choice of singles from albums, often directing our disdain at the labels. But in this case, it seemed the band was deliberately sabotaging their own career. It’s not even as though they loved the song that much themselves – Bittersweet Me was never played live other than during soundchecks on the Monster Tour (one of which, recorded in Memphis, formed the backing track for the eventual album track/single).

In the UK, it charted in its first week at #19 before plummeting to #53 the following week and out of the Top 100 altogether after that. Proof, if any were needed, that the general public had lost interest by now, with only the true fans keeping the band’s chart profile alive. Those of us who did buy it however, were rewarded with some cracking b-sides. No vinyl again, but a pesky cassette single was put out with another fully live version of an album track. Undertow is one of New Adventures in Hi-Fi’s strongest songs, and here it’s even more raucous and dirty than the album version. It’s this version that features in the concert film Road Movie.

mp3: R.E.M. – Undertow [live – Atlanta]

Like last time, two CDs were released, both identical in content, but the so-called ‘Collector’s Edition’ had slightly different packaging. But whatever version you bought, you were in for a real treat. After the first two songs came what was at the time, and remains, a very sad track that makes me enormously happy and glad to be alive. R.E.M.’s take on Jimmy Webb’s classic Wichita Lineman is, frankly, beyond words. I love it so much, probably my favourite of the band’s covers. Just wonderful.

mp3: R.E.M. – Wichita Lineman [live – Houston]

Finally, another live version of a track from the album, but this time recorded acoustically in the studio. New Test Leper really is a highlight, not just on NAiHF, but of the band’s career. An immensely sad tale of character assassination via a TV talk show. You know – the kind that gave us Jeremy Kyle and Jerry Springer. Stipe’s lyrics are so poignant and tragic. This version doesn’t top the album take, but it’s still a bit of a gem. (JC adds….I think both versions are equally magnificent.  If you don’t know the album version, I do recommend you acquaint yourself with it as soon as you can).

mp3: R.E.M. – New Test Leper [acoustic – Seattle studio]

As the casual listener turned its back on the band, the fans took New Adventures In Hi-Fi to their hearts. It really is one of R.E.M.’s career highs and would have been perfect if it were a bit shorter, and more successful if better songs were released from it. There was to be one last single from New Adventures (making it their first album of the decade to contain fewer than four singles), and next week JC has the honour of talking you through it.

The Robster

14 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 30)

  1. And I agree that the wrong songs (so far) were chosen for singles. I would have started with The Wake-Up Bomb and then gone for Undertow. But you are SO right in saying that the b-sides chosen were some of the best.
    Looking forward to what JC will say about the last NAiHF single next week.

  2. New Adventures in Hi Fi was my first REM cd purchase – as such I didn’t listen to it that much at the time – I resented being forced to buy CDs (so few shops stocked vinyl or ordered enough copies). I enjoyed the LP but felt disconnected from it with no 12″ art work/sleeve notes to pour over.

    I have not heard Wichita Lineman (although, strangely, while reading I could actually hear my notion of Stipe singing it). I will address my omission today.

    I can’t help but think Singular Adventures should be published. So much work and thought.

    It’s brought a thaw to a very frosty morning.

  3. Hi Conrad

    We are only featuring the singles released in the UK, which means next week will be the third and final chapter from NAIHF.

  4. Ahhhhhhhh. will you be mentioning the ‘other single’s’ b-side, which are worth getting hold of.

  5. Surely a new series: REM – the Should’ve Been Singles! I’m with @Paul Mclaughlan on first choice but “So Fast So Numb” is also a good shout. And “Witchita Lineman” could well be their finest cover – mind you, the (original?) Glenn Campbell version is stunning.

  6. It’s an album I didn’t really connect with when it came out, found a vinyl copy a couple of years later and realised what I’d been missing. Their last great album for me. Agree about the singles choice (again) and Wake Up Bomb would have bene a good choice. As would Electrolite. Actually, now I’m thinking Electrolite was a single (not gonna Google it so I have a surprise next Sunday one way or the other). Electrolite is gorgeous,

  7. Another fascinating post, Robster, and interesting to read the comments about what should and shouldn’t have been singles. I’ve not listened to NAIHF so I only know these songs as singles. For some strange reason, I have both this and the next single, but I assume I got both second hand/in the bargain bin. In the context of 1996, this didn’t seem out of place as a single. I think the B-sides are excellent (though I mistakenly thought that New Test Leper and Undertow had been singles, to be honest!) and Wichita Lineman is one of their best cover versions.

    Just to clear up a question for me: my CD single labels the lead song as Bittersweet Me (Memphis Soundcheck). Is this unique to the single or is it the same as the NAIHF album version?

  8. I’ve always had Wichita Lineman down on my list of Songs That Really Shouldn’t Be Covered (hey – there’s an idea for a series!), but I’ll revise that after hearing this tasteful rendition.

  9. Khayem: It’s the album version. Though not listed as explicitly on the album, all tracks have their recording source added to their titles for the single.

  10. Looking forward to hearing the Wichita Lineman cover. Like FFF,
    I can imagine what it might sound like, but maybe it’ll be even
    better.

    Really enjoyed this post, particularly the suspicion that the
    band was hard at work dismantling its popularity.

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