REM - New Adventures In Hifi
WHAT IF all your dreams come true?
If you're Michael Stipe, the answer's disillusion. And, of all the maladies that can strike you down, disillusion is the darkest. Disillusion is neither trust betrayed, nor hopes shattered. Disillusion is far worse. It is all your goals attained, all your ambitions achieved, all your hopes fulfilled, and yet there is no satisfaction. No peace. Disillusion is the hollow realisation that the fault resides within yourself, that, even with everything you ever wanted, you are an incurable emotional vacuum.
'New Adventures In Hi-Fi' is one of the most disillusioned albums ever made. There's the can't-be-arsed title. There's the way it was recorded - roughly, in soundchecks, on tour, with few overdubs and barely any mixing. And there's the way it's played - Peter Buck's guitar lazily tuned, running on reverb over basic riffs while the rhythm section bashes it out somewhere in the background. All the indications are that REM have totally lost faith in the recording process.
And then, of course, there's Michael Stipe. Every lyric on this album is harrowed from a soul so empty all it seems to hear is the echo of its own resignation. One by one, song by song, solutions are sought and brutally discarded. It's a litany of trouble beyond despair.
The album opens with 'How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us', a stumbling, mutant reggae that sets the sorry scene. "The story is a sad one I've told many times..." sings Stipe in that world-weary way of his, employing the collapse of the American Dream as a metaphor for the emptiness of superstardom. The chorus amounts to little more than a strangled cry. It's not even a rock'n'roll scream. It's not even emotional. It's automatic. And it's for the people. This goes straight into the glam racket of 'The Wake Up Bomb', a savage indictment of the postmodern fascination with pop history. Stipe namechecks 1973, thinks he sounds like Mott The Hoople and declares he'll, "Practise my T Rex moves and make a scene," before concluding, "I'd rather be anywhere else/Doing anything... See ya/Don't wanna be ya..." So that's narcissism slaughtered then.
Next up, 'New Age Leper' comes on more melancholy. Reminiscent of 'Man In The Moon', it sets religion against television and uses the chat show as symbolic of Stipe's predicament - he's worshipped as a superstar and yet it gives him no power and no influence. Even in the process of making this record, he feels morally bankrupt: "I know this show doesn't matter," he barely whispers, "It means nothing to me..." More horrific still is 'Undertow'. Hardly audible above the band's cacophony, he contemplates suicide and then trashes the romance of the option. "I don't need no heaven," he wails. "I don't need religion/I am in the place I ought to be/I am breathing water..." So there's no solace in the legendary way out then, no dumb notion of joining his friend Kurt Cobain in "that stupid club" which guarantees immortality through membership of the rock'n'roll hall of fame. Imagine, it's so dark there's no escape, even through death! And then hear 'E-Bow The Letter' where Stipe reads through a list reminiscent of 'It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)' only drained of all the energy and joy. While Patti Smith mewls in the shadows like a vampire, Stipe basically just gives up on relationships. It's a deliberately perverse first single with which to launch an album, an act which once more indicates that REM have lost all inclination to play the game and pander to the promotional market.
'Leave' and 'Departure' follow, both ragged blow-outs. The former is continually punctuated by a siren that annoys like a persistent car alarm at the dead of night, as though the band are actually challenging us to stick with the song. The latter comes at us like one of those '70s rock band on-the-road celebrations of untouchable hedonism but Stipe derails all the machismo with a tired chorus of, "Go Go Go... Yeah" and a coda that declares, "There is so much that I can't do..."
A similar roller coaster riff drives 'Bittersweet Me', Stipe's most blatant declaration of the disillusion that blights him: "I don't know what I'm hungry for/I don't know what I want any more." 'Be Mine' is sheer desperation. Over a skeletal ballad, Stipe clings to the chorus, "You and me, you and me, you and me," like his life is breaking up under him, the choke in his throat clearly indicative of the fact that he has no belief that he can be saved, even by love.
'Binky' is a harsh laugh at the utter ridiculousness of the situation, Stipe referring to his "doormat face", while conceding, "I am defeated". 'Zither' is just a daft cocktail bar instrumental, a melancholy showbiz thing crawling through its paces before 'So Fast, So Numb' shatters the self-parody by dissecting the awful intensity of a drugged-up relationship, the volatile, sexy high grown addictive, then numb, then self-obsessed and self-pitying. "This is me/This is what I wanted you to see," he tells his amphetamine partner. So the drugs don't do it either! There'd be harm on the way if either could feel, if either could bother.
'Low Desert' is a disappointingly typical REM sweep through the landscape, Stipe noting the terrain, finding no freedom through travel, then 'Electrolite' concludes the album. Like 'Night Swimming' it is a forlorn lullaby, gently mocking those who would escape their horrors by living out the Hollywood fantasy. A lonesome fiddler accompanies Stipe like some gypsy at his table as the singer wearily dispenses clichd chat-up lines then quits with the words, "I'm not scared/I'm outta here..." It's been a long haul.
Of course, one reaction to 'New Adventures...' is to mock. Stipe is a man who's just grabbed himself a cut of $80million, the biggest recording contract ever. Surely to whinge the way he does all over the album is taking the piss out of us, belittling our dreams and ambitions. But then again, there is such a wretched, dogged commitment to Stipe's pain that it would be churlish not to succumb to his honesty. So who to pity most, the person at WEA who decided he could invest a fortune in this band because they will still be making music together at 50 (has he listened to this album?!) or Stipe who finds himself at the peak of his powers only to discover that his muse, if you like, is his disappointment and disgust at the pointlessness he feels for what he's achieved?
This is a dangerous, cancerous place to be, feeding off yourself, creating from your loathing for your very own creations. It's surely a sign of their disease that REM went for adrenaline over finesse when recording 'New Adventures...'. It's as if they sought to stave off their disillusion through sheer heads-down-let's-not-think-about-it activity. And it is just as surely a sign of this band's greatness that, in trying to make a record that, uh, rocked over anything else, they singularly failed to excise the introspection which is eating away at their heart. That, ironically, is their genius.
OK, so sometimes listening to 'New Adventures...' feels like witnessing someone slaughtering their children just so they can feel sorry for themselves. But at other times, when the darkness and the doubts descend to scare you, this album voices the confusion of futility with dreadful accuracy. Most of us will never get to be where Michael Stipe is, will never find our dreams fulfilled only to discover it means f?? all. And maybe we should take comfort in that. Because unless you win the Lottery or do a bank, you're never likely to find yourself like Michael Stipe, high and dry in a lonely place with nothing left to hanker after.
'New Adventures In Hi-Fi' is not an easy album but it's a great one and it loves the fact that it loathes itself. Long may REM reign in pain but it's not real healthy, and Christ only knows where they go from here.