**** R.E.M. “New Adventures in Hi-Fi,” Warner Bros.
The last thing we need is another song--much less an entire album--about a band on the road. So there’s reason to worry when you hear that R.E.M. recorded most of the tunes for “New Adventures” while on tour--often during afternoon sound checks.
And in the album, the quartet does touch on many of the themes that you might expect to come out of the disorienting highs and lows of a year or so on the concert trail.
There are songs of despair (“Undertow”), exhibitionism (the glam-driven “The Wake-Up Bomb”), longing (“Be Mine”), escapism (“Electrolite”) and dangerous habits (“So Fast, So Numb”).
What distinguishes “New Adventures” is that it takes those and other feelings and expresses them through characters who don’t necessarily have anything to do with the rock world.
“Electrolite,” which should be R.E.M.'s biggest radio hit since the days of “Man on the Moon” and “Everybody Hurts,” could be about someone going from the rush of being on stage to the anxiety of a troubled personal life.
Yet the character in the song gets his high from the glamour of Mulholland Drive at night. He apparently has to go back to a world so unsettling that you don’t know from the last words of the song whether he’s just leaving the hilltop or contemplating something more serious.
Musically, the album moves between the rock vigor of 1994’s “Monster” and some of the softer, more graceful touches of the group’s earlier works. “Electrolite,” for instance, has a seductive lilt reminiscent of "(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” and “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry).”
In the darker, absorbing “Undertow,” there’s a harsh, haunting tension in the guitars that works against the comforting gospel melody as Stipe sings of a man so battered by life that he truly has lost his religion.
As in “Monster,” there are times when the band turns to some favorite rock models. Not only does the group take on some of the rootsy, mid-'60s Dylan feel (thanks to Mike Mills on organ) in “New Leper Test,” but Stipe also assumes Dylan’s raspy vocal delivery.
In its most powerful moments, “New Adventures” shares some of the stark obsession of U2’s 1991 “Achtung Baby,” another album that alludes to rock star isolation without identifying it as such.
Like the Irish band, R.E.M. continues to grow in fresh, exciting and embracing ways--a band from the ‘80s that not only competes creatively with the best of the new ‘90s outfits, but also ranks favorably when measured against the greatest bands ever.
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