52. R.E.M. — New Adventures in Hi-Fi
Critics like to give bands certain arcs, and those arcs tend to conform with the rise-and-fall of tragedy. The Beatles “fell apart” due to success, the Stones jumped the shark in the 70’s, briefly re-grouped for Some Girls, and then coasted along ever since. And according to overwhelming critical assessment, R.E.M. put out their last good album in 1996.
I like this album quite a bit, but like most R.E.M., I’m not in the mood to listen to it very much. I suppose that’s because I came to the band late, after an initial distaste. They never summed up my youth nor summoned waves of nostalgia. They’re just a band that made some observations.
If I like this album better than Automatic for the People, it’s probably because I decided that this one rocks harder. In that respect, it’s more like 1994’s Monster. There’s a power-pop guitar crunch on half the songs here, even on “So Fast, So Dumb,” which also features a clean bright piano line as counterpoint. If ragged, bleeding guitar gives the impression of emotional combustibility, then one concludes that this was a frazzled time indeed. Suggestions of road-weariness mixed with Micheal Stipes’ angry mourning over the loss of friend Kurt Cobain practically write themselves.
Which brings us to “Leave”, the masterpiece of the album. There’s an almost palpable “Hell with it” in the way the air-raid siren sound effect remains on all the way through all seven minutes of the track, but the real shock is that it actually works. The song is suffocating in its intensity yet still manages to be a song, complete with singalongable chorus. If this is the last great R.E.M. song, it’s nothing like their others, yet one that I can only imagine them doing.
But since I don’t have Up or Around the Sun or Accelerate or Collapse into Now, I’m not really qualified to make those assessments. All I can really tell you is what this all sounds like to me. And it sounds like a band trying to rock their blues away.