REM has become a post-REM band, a band that makes sense in the aftermath of the early-1990s alternarock revolution that they helped create.
The signature Byrds-inspired jangley guitar lines are gone, but all the band's pretension and insight remain on its new album New Adventures in Hi-Fi , a record that has the heart but not the face of their previous works.
With the change, it's possible the band has finally made an album that won't grow tiresome with time, like several of their near-classics have.
The album is a black-and-white-covered collection of songs written and recorded during the Monster tour. The album doesn't simply represent the best of rock and roll, but at moments, is better than rock and roll.
For the first time, it's clear that the band has a grasp of the humor in its hugeness. Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry have always included songs that can't be taken seriously - "Stand" and "Shiny Happy People" are some of the more notables in that group. In New Adventures in Hi-Fi , the closest they come is in "The Wake-up Bomb," a tune that both honors and parodies schlock rock of the past three decades. In the song, the ever-angst-ridden Stipe sings "I get high on my attitude, latitude, 1973" and "Practice my T-Rex moves, Make the scene," lyrics which make fun of the rock world and REM. And the beauty of it is that when the novelty of the irony and of the 1970s-style echo chorus of "The Wake-up Bomb" wears off, the song will still rock in a way that REM doesn't normally rock - but should occasionally.
REM has developed a satirical sense that stops short of lunacy, which has been necessary given their role in the pop music world. Over their last four albums, REM has developed a huge stature. The last record, 1994's Monster, an album attempting to popify grunge as Sugar had already done - and done better - made REM into The Biggest Band in the World for the moment. That epithet is very different from one that applied with the band's first five albums, which were undifferentiable clones of one another. That epithet was The Band for Teenage Misfits of the 1980s, a misery- and folk-friendly title.
Most notably on "E-bow the Letter," but also on the brilliant "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," and "Leave," Stipe only half sings his lyrics in the style of Lou Reed. With his bitter staccato baritone, and Mike Mills' transient guitar work, REM has become fully an art band rather than a rock band. New Adventures in Hi-Fi isn't really about rock and roll. Instead, it's about Art, with an Andy Warhol-Velvet Underground-style capital "A."
This art territory is the natural space for a band whose album covers are consistently the most pretentious available. It's the right place for REM to be given both the state of the world and the state of the band. On their six albums, the band played virtually indistinguishable southern-tinged pop songs that had artistic twists and a soothing touch of Mills' mandolin. Then, there was the transition.
With guest artists such as the B-52's Kate Pierson on Out of Time, they tried to be a socially-conscious party band. That worked for a moment, then became painful. 1992's Automatic for the People was an attempt to fuse artist's pain and accept a place as a democratic band of the people.
Then, they became The Biggest Band in the World and made Monster, a record by The Biggest Band in The World that replaced the mandolin with plugged-in power and a running guitar tremolo. The problem with Monster was that it had been done before.
Since the overblown but well-produced Monster , REM has come to terms with their rock and roll role. The new album is still about stature, but it's not so heavy as to drown out the band's textured and sometimes trippy music.
This band, which rejected guitar heroics in a time when Van Halen and Aerosmith ruled the airwaves, has put together an album that has guitars that do more than texture and jangle. The album's 14 songs combine for more than 65 minutes of music.
The album's epic is the seven-minute long "Leave," a multi-movement piece that resists becoming a grating Lynyrd Skynyrd-style jam or a Pink Floyd-style psychedelic experiment. The song, like the album as a whole, updates the Velvet Underground's art. The REM twist is that the new album replaces a late-1960s sense of doom with a mid-1990s sense of confusion.
In the album's first and best track, "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," Stipe sings, "The story is a sad one told many times/ The story of my life and trying times" without the annoying pain he projects in Automatic's "Everybody Hurts." The song combines a deep guitar line by Buck and an oddly appropriate jazz piano solo by Mills.
With that set-up, the album slithers through different styles, including surf guitar on "E-bow the Letter" and a dab of techno on "Leave" and a short instrumental interlude on "Zither."
The album contains the athematic Smashing Pumpkins-reminiscent "Be Mine," which is mixed so its arena hit-ability is toned down under Stipe's stylings.
And the leaving images are about stature, though they're folded into a piano and violin-driven piece, "Electrolite," in which Stipe states, "Hollywood is under me/ I'm Martin Sheen/ I'm Steve McQueen/ I'm Jimmy Dean."
It seems REM has mixed its irony, its textures and its artiness in an truly transcendent work. A work appropriate for the Biggest Band in the World, even in a post-REM rock world.
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 2; September 13, 1996
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