They say it's always darkest before the dawn. For R.E.M., these have been dark days indeed. In 1992 the Athens, Ga., band released Automatic for the People, on which the singer and lyricist Michael Stipe reflected upon life's rich ephemerality. Two years later, Stipe's friend Kurt Cobain killed himself. R.E.M. responded on 1994's Monster by rocking like teenage music geeks in a suburban garage. But a bizarre series of medical emergencies nearly derailed the band's '95 world tour. Stipe, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry all landed in the hospital; Berry suffered a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him. Now on the sweeping New Adventures in Hi-Fi, R.E.M.'s most ambitious album to date, the band attempts to stitch together all the disparate mood swings that have characterized its fight to maintain its integrity in the face of both disaster and superstardom. This could be R.E.M.'s swan song — or the first day of the rest of their lives.
The sequence of songs and the range of emotions on New Adventures convey a narrative that has all the dynamics and contradictions of life itself. Although mostly recorded on the Monster tour during live shows, sound checks and even in a dressing-room jam session, New Adventures is not a conventional live album. Co-producer Scott Litt has cleaned up the music to the point that New Adventures sounds like a studio album. What does come across, though, is a freedom and movement inspired by the road. From the seven-minute-long "Leave" (recorded during a sound check in Atlanta) to the five-minute-long "Undertow" (from a gig in Boston), there's a sense of spontaneity here that's rarely been heard on an R.E.M. record.
Stipe gets to the heart of matters in the first track, "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," a sad, bitter song that floats atop a whispering tom-tom pulse and a lonesome Ennio Morricone-ish guitar part. His voice creeps across the landscape like a tired warrior. "This story is a sad one, told many times," Stipe sings, and it's clear he's talking about R.E.M. this time, not of the plight of America or the earth.
"How the West Was Won" is hardly the obvious choice for an album opener; a safer bet would have been the harder-rocking second track, "The Wake-Up Bomb," a glam-y song about youth gone mad and success gone haywire. But in a time when too many cookie-cutter alternative bands crank out predictable ear candy, R.E.M. choose artistic restraint over crass commercialism, giving New Adventures a sense of ambition and liberation that R.E.M. haven't displayed since 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction.
Liberation is a recurring theme on New Adventures. Whether Stipe is singing of escape in "Departure" or "Low Desert" or questioning religious faith in "New Test Leper" or "Undertow," he seems anxious to rid himself of the noise and clutter of celebrity excess. In "The Wake-Up Bomb," he riffs on the suffocating price of fame: "I've had enough, seen enough, had it all, given up/I won the race, broke the cup; I drank it all, spit it up." And then, in a sardonic kiss-off, he adds, "See ya — I don't wanna be ya." In "Leave," which begins with a baroqueish-sounding pump organ and acoustic guitar before blasting into a full-on-rave driven by a squalling electronic siren, Stipe warbles the line "I'm leaving, leaving, leaving it all behind." In "Bittersweet Me," he confesses, "I'd sooner chew my leg off/Than be trapped in this."
Stipe's rage is tempered only by a sense of melancholy that embraces the album like a warm quilt. In a duet with his longtime heroine Patti Smith, on the eerie "E-Bow the Letter," he talk-sings his way through a Dylan-esque narrative constructed of clipped images that could be an ode to a dying friend or lover. With Peter Buck sawing away on his guitar in fuzzy, sustained notes that recall guitarist Robert Fripp's patented Frippertronics sound, Stipe repeats the line "Aluminum tastes like fear" as Smith's background moaning of "I'll take you over" serves as sort of a loving, maternal safety net.
"E-Bow the Letter" is the most ambitious song here, but R.E.M. also push their boundaries elsewhere. Stipe sings the first part of "Be Mine" in a low-fi style similar to that of Sebadoh, with nothing but Buck's distorted guitar ringing in the background. R.E.M. take their first step into the realm of exotic lounge music on the sad-faced "Zither," an instrumental featuring trembling guitar, shimmery zither, organ and tambourine.
By the final track, "Electrolite" — a simple, folk-based pop song fueled by R.E.M.'s soothingly familiar guitar jangle — Stipe seems cleansed, even giddy in his commitment to moving on. After reeling out a cinematic image of hope among the depraved ruins of Los Angeles ("If you ever want to fly Mulholland Drive, up in the sky/Stand on a cliff and look down there; don't be scared, you are alive"), the music stops and gives way to the kind of silent clarity that only comes with the dawn. "I'm outta here," Stipe says. Welcome to the new beginning.