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.
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.
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.
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).
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.