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I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - New Adventures in HiFi

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This album wins worst title. Also we have to talk about REM selling out again, not because of the album, but because of the record deal following it and the departure of the best member of the band.

With New Adventures in HiFi the 5 album record deal with Warner Bros ran out and they negotiated a ridiculous lucrative new record deal of a rumoured 80 million dollars with Warner Bros. REM had long ceased to be the small band from a small town in Georgia that could and had become an institution over the last 5 years . Music snobs (some music journalists included) resented that "their" cool secret cult band were internationally successful stars now. Pricey concert tickets during the Monster tour were held against them (fair) as well as playing stadiums after having said in the 80s that they dislike the idea of playing in front of an audience of more than 5000. It also did not help that they had stopped inviting music journalists to hang out with them in Athens (2 of the 4 members had moved away) and that they parted ways with their long term manager and college friend Jefferson Holt (most probably because he was harassing an employee, but I guess REM were expected to follow bro-code here? Instead they removed him, changed the lyrics of the song where he was mentioned and never spoke of him again). Claims from REM that they have maintained their creative freedom with the new contract were outright rejected, Up would very much prove them right there, but the whole discussion eclipsed New Adventures in HiFi.

One year after New Adventure in HiFi was released Bill Berry left the band to be a farmer. First of all, how cool is Bill Berry? He got offered a multi million dollar contract and went "Nah, I'd rather be farmer instead". Hands down the coolest member (the correct order is Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills. Fight me). The others decided to continue. For years REM had maintained that each member is essential (reflected by sharing song writing credits) and that the band would cease to exist if any member left. For the "REM is selling out" crowd, continuing after Bill Berry left was just another example of them abandoning their principals. The departure was amicable. Berry wanted to leave, because he did not like being a rock star anymore, he hated travelling, hated giving interviews and (as he said recently) did not actually like playing drums that much. He also did not want to be the reason his friends had to give up something they love. They continued with his blessing, he returned once, when they were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and otherwise plays with Buck and Mills in some of their side projects every now and then. Whether they should have broken up or not, his departure was the end of an era and for many New Adventures in HiFi was the last great REM album.

New Adventures in HiFi
The album is great. Most of it was recorded during the Monster tour and it has a lot of energy because of it. It is more of a rock album than Monster was, which had in a way only two fast tempo rock songs (What's the Frequency Kenneth? and Star 69), New Adventures in HiFi has 5 (The Wake-Up Bomb, Leave, Departure, Binky the Doormat and So Fast, So Numb). Instead of overloading his guitar with effects Buck combines the rockier guitar sound with his melodic playing style. He also is exploring some more playing styles, with a more impressionistic style on Undertow and the e-bow on E-Bow the Letter. The more melodic, folkier sound from Automatic for the People is back as well, on songs like Electrolite. The mixing is back to the clean production sound that started with Lifes Rich Pageant. Which is really good, as they are all really on the top of their game, with something musically interesting going on in each part, be it an interesting bass line or guitar riff, piano part or lyric.

Shout outs:

  • I sat in front of MTV for hours, waiting for E-Bow the Letter to come on. Warner Bros has blamed choosing this song as single for the album not selling well (I explained in the Monster review and above why I think it sold less than its predecessors). I still really love the song, I love the e-bow on it (yay Peter Buck!) and I'm a fan of melancholic songs anyway.

  • The bass line in New Test Leper is a 3 minute long bass solo.

  • I like the siren sound in Leave. Also Leave was written by Bill Berry.

  • On Binky the Doormat you can hear Berry sing "yeah, yeah, yeah" over the chorus. Which made me make this meme:

  • I forgot about the violin in Electrolite. I forgot what a pleasent song Electrolite was in general, I remember liking the piano part. I also think it is cool that the album ends with "I'm outta here"

  • Closing thoughts: There are two kind of REM records, the more concept records, with a thought out musical style, like Automatic for the People or Monster and the once like this one, where they have lot of different musical ideas in one album. Sometimes it creates a whiplash effect, like Green, here it really made a very varied and interesting album. I somehow never connected to it as much as I have with other albums, but I understand why fans rank it very high. If you like REM, this is a good album to have. Next is the first album without Bill Berry, the very inaccurately named "Up".

    I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Monster

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    It is so much easier to talk about Monster than Automatic for the People. Especially as I have so much I can talk about, which has nothing to do with music. I became a proper REM fan (not only listening to one album, but also reading interviews, buying older albums, waiting for new singles / albums to be released) after going to a concert of the Monster tour. It was in this really random place, at a swimming lake next to a small provincial town called Düren. It was great, it was a mini festival with Oasis (who were having sound issues), Cranberries (who were very relaxing, we were just sitting on the beach chillin' and listening to them) and REM. I had only listened to Automatic for the People by then, when they came on everyone stood up, so I (small 13 year old) wandered to the front to see better. REM fans are really nice, so they just keep letting me go further and further to the front until I ended up really close to the stage. I heard a lot of songs for the first time and sang along to the rest. It was amazing and I had a lot of fun, while my brother was frantically looking for his baby sister almost having a heart attack.
    It was really lucky that the concert even happened. The tour was very unlucky, earlier the year Bill Berry had had an aneurysm on stage in Switzerland and one day after the concert in Düren Mike Mills had to go to hospital for intestinal adhesion.

    Speaking of Mike Mills, this is the time he finally realized that he is in a rock band. For 14 years, he had looked like this:

    Same glasses, same hairstyle and never seemed to age. Then during Monster, he grew out his hair (while Stipe shaved his off due to bolding) and decided to wear these amazing suits:

    The rest of the band stayed pretty much in T-shirt and jeans look, so the band pictures always look like this random country star walked into the picture. If it was a mid life crisis, I approve of it, if I had a job where I could get away with wearing lots of sequence, that is what I would be doing as well. He even bleached his hair later (and fought as much against yellow tinge as I do) and CHANGED HIS GLASSES, which was a sacrilege (I'm not going to talk about the soul patch, because I refuse to acknowledge it's existence). I stopped listening to REM in 2001, so when I googled pictures for this post, I got reminded of the cruel passing of time, the always young looking Mills has become an old man, white hair and all.

    During the promotion of this album Stipe came out as queer. Privately he had been out since the early 80s, but had been reluctant to publicly discuss his sex life, especially as the press was eager to put a defining label (gay, bi, etc) on something he considers inherently fluent. Years of awkward speculation about his health in the middle of the Aids crisis was a further deterrent. Years later, the press decided to have him come out again, when he mentioned his partner in an interview. So REM released a press announcement, which I love. I don´t know if the themes on Monster about identity, obsessiveness and sex were a reaction to the decision to come out or if the decision to come out was influenced by the themes in the lyrics.

    REM had not toured for 4 years and decided it is time again. The last two albums had been low and mid tempo acoustic albums, so they set out to make a rock record again, to have something to tour on. The album is heavily inspired by glam rock. They decided to use ALL the effects on the electric guitar. They even used a tremolo effect on the bass a few times. The result is an album that is really close to 50 minutes of white noise. It alienated a lot of people. It sold well, but very soon copies could be found in the used record racks. The producer Scott Litt, who had been with them since Document, regretted the decisions made mixing this album and when the 25th anniversary of it came around he completely remixed it (REM themselves stand with their original decisions). I listened to both.
    I like the original Monster, because I have a phobia of fire crackers. Let me explain. Between New Years and Carnival school kids in my area have a lot of access to fire crackers. The ones illegal in Germany are bought in the Netherlands, which is a bus ride away. Going to school during this time was hell for me. So when I was 14 I had my trusty walk-man and the Automatic for the People / Monster tape from my sister. Monster, with it's continuous noise level, turned up at maximum volume and a thick woolen hat was my daily armour and saved me from a few panic attacks (and reduced my pretend sick days).
    Listening to it now, I still prefer many of the original versions. What's the Frequency Kenneth still rocks and the guitar effect over the chourus (removed in the remix) is a great hook. Star 69 (my favourite song from the album) is so much better with the reverb effect over the vocals, with Stipe singing over himself. That is the thing with some of the effects, they sometimes had a stylistic reason to be there. most so on Let Me In. The song is dedicated to Kurt Cobain and the lyrics are drowned under heavily distorted guitar. But that is Kurt Cobain's guitar (gifted to Mills, who plays it upside down, because Kurt Cobain was left handed). Why would you remove this?
    The only two songs I find majorly improved in the remix are Crush with Eyeliner and King of Comedy. The little guitar riff in Crush with Eyeliner emphasizes the glam of the song and King of Comedys strange drum track is emphasized and by enhancing the background vocals (which sound like Stipe just got everyone in the studio to sing along) the overall dark song gets some much need humour at the end.
    On this album Buck gets to really stretch himself. He abandons his usual Rickenbacker and apreggiated playing style for a Les Paul and rock riffs and short solos with lots of effects added for fun. Buck is somewhat underrated as a guitarist. He never was found of the typical minutes long show off guitar solo and preferred to play a melodic guitar and other acoustic string instruments (dulcimer and mandolin especially). Monster is just a further example of his versatility as a guitar player.

    Shout outs
  • I love Star 69. It has so much going on. The crazy vocals with the reverb effect over it, a bass line you can sing along to, a lot of cool guitar riffs in between and Berry working the drums as hard as he can. The small "woooho" in the background vocals makes me smile every time.

  • Tongue gets the price for most depressing lyrics. I never listened to them before. I was happier when I thought it was a fun song about oral sex. Seriously Stipe.

  • Let Me In moved me before I even knew the history of the song. It is such an honest expression of grief.

  • I always thought Bang and Blame is an OK song. I don't know why youtube keeps autoplaying to it. Now I'm kind of annoyed by it.

  • Closing thoughts: It is no surprise to me that this is the album where the commercial success began to fade. It is not exactly accessible and not only because of mixing decisions. The songs are a balancing act between swagger and ugly, dark and disturbing, with the latter overshadowing the former in many songs. If one compares it to Garbage, for example, who released their album a year after and are also glam inspired, their songs lean towards the swagger (and are poppier) it is really clear that it was not so much the idea, but the dark place it ended in that made people tire of it. That is not me saying it is bad, just difficult.

    When REM released Out of Time, they decided to go against their usual style and take a risk. The stars aligned and they hit the Zeitgeist, with Monster, this did not happen. Many of the fans who had loved Out of Time and Automatic for the People could not relate to Monster, the older fans from the 80s had grown up and were busy wit mortgages, kids and jobs to keep following bands they liked in their youth. Teenagers were getting into the new punk movement, like Green Day and Offspring or Hip Hop and had little interest in some 80s rock band, which kept releasing depressing albums. Except for me. I was the only REM fan my age I knew. I was waiting for the new album to come out, waited to hear the new single on MTV. New Adventures in Hifi was the first REM album I actually bought.

    I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Automatic for the People

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    Mike Mills gets really annoyed when people pirate their music. So, I'm sorry to say that when I was about 10 (in 1992) my sister got a copied tape of Automatic for the People from someone. On the b-side of the tape I recorded Monster, two years later. This tape was the heart of my REM collection. I didn't really start listening to it until '94, I was busy being a Bon Jovi and Take That fan first #noregrets. But then it took over my life. I listened to it several times a day and when my family went on a trip to Chile in '95 my sister and me listened to it on the several day long car trip up and down the Chilean coast (usually fast forwarding through Monster). The songs are basically part of me now. And if I ever meet Mike Mills, I'll buy him a beer.

    Automatic for the People

    This album has been rightly called a timeless masterpiece. They did not set out to record a mid/low tempo orchestral album, they had planned to do a proper rock record again and seemed themselves a bit surprised at the outcome. They continue to use a wide range of acoustic instruments, there is an accordion, an oboe, string arrangements, but it does not have the playfulness of Out of Time, it has a melancholy, which cuts deep. They even manage to make Mills' background vocals sound melancholic.
    It feels like a less experimental album than Out of Time, most songs primary instruments are bass and guitar and the songs are written in traditional song structure (verse, chorus, verse chorus, bridge etc). Despite the overarching theme of aging, changes, loss and memory of the album, it is not one note. There is cynicism in Drive and Ignoreland, whistfulness in Try not to Breathe, Nightswimming and Find the River, humour in The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite and Man on the Moon and emotional sincerity in Everybody Hurts. To me the core songs of the album are Try not to Breathe, New Orleans Instrumental No.1 and Sweetness Follows. Try not to Breathe is a surprisingly life affirming song about the right to die. The lyrics on this album are insanely good (and heartbreaking).

    I will hold my breath until all these shivers subside

    The basis of the song is a (unsurprisingly) melodic bass line, lead guitar and rhythm guitar. The simple main riff / theme gets at some point repeated by all three. It is a good example how, despite the orchestral parts of this album, it is very much grounded in folk music. New Orleans Instrumental No.1 is Berry on bass, Mills on Organ and Buck playing electric guitar with some weird effect, which made me google the song in frustration as I could not figure out which instrument was played. The bass line of Sweetness Follows is played on cello and added to it is the long sustained electric guitar from Country Feedback, organ and acoustic guitar. It creates a perfect atmosphere of sadness and distance. And the lyrics are super depressing.

    It's these little things, they can pull you under
    Live your life filled with joy and thunder
    Yeah, yeah, we were all together
    Lost in our little lives

    Of course it is my favourite song from the album.

    While the previous three songs might be a perfect summation of this album, the last three, Man on the Moon, Nightswimming and Find the River are simply the best REM have ever written. Man on the Moon, the favourite of most of the members is a perfect REM song, like Gardening at Night and Fall on Me. It is built on a slide guitar riff by Berry, that Buck extended upon and has great backing vocals in the chorus. Nightswimming, built on a simple piano piece from Mills is a perfect example of less is more. At it's core it is just piano and voice, with perfect lyrics about being nostalgic for the innocent times of youth. Find the River underscores the folk music feel of the album, with the melodica and river metaphors. It could have gone cliche easily, but somehow ends up in beauty.

    Shout outs:

  • In the third verse of The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite Stipe mispronounces Dr. Seuss as Dr. Zeus and giggles at his mistake in the chorus. It is one of my favourite music moments, especially considering the heaviness of the album in general.

  • Everybody Hurts was my favourite song when I was 14 (and the song which taught me finger picking). Now, 38 and cynical, the emotional sincerity of it is sometimes hard to swallow. Especially as the whole arrangement of it, strings and all, underscores it.

  • REM are really good in using an organ. It appears on several songs on this album, and they used it frequently throught their career. To me it is a fundamental to the sound of REM as Bucks mandolin.

  • The string arrangements are perfect on each song and are done by John Paul Jones.

  • Closing thoughts: This was a hard album to talk about. I do not have the musical knowledge to adequately express how great it is and my emotional attachment to it makes it hard for me to listen to the songs in an analytical way. This is the one album every record collection needs, even if you don't like REM or alternative rock. Like, if you don't have it in your record collection I WILL judge you. The next album is Monster, the one always found in used records racks, symbolising simultaneously the highest point of commercial success and decline of REM.

    I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Out of Time

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    With this album my history with REM starts. Unfortunately I do not remember if the first song I ever heard was Losing my Religion or Shiny Happy People. I was 9 and the older, cool kids had "disco evenings" at the yearly biking trip and let me as one of the only non-teenagers join. The tape of the playlist of these evenings was the first non-kids music I listened to. Other than the two songs, I didn't really get into REM until later, but these two are forever intertwined with childhood memories.

    REM had just come back from an extensive and exhausting world tour with Green and Peter Buck did not even want to look at an electric guitar anymore. Taking the acoustic songs from Green as an inspiration, they started writing songs on mandolin and other obscure instruments. The resulting album is a masterpiece (minus one song, which is an atrocity, but we'll get to this later). Time and memory has had an interesting effect on this album. For a 90s kid like me, the sound of it, especially Losing my Religion has become THE sound of the 90s. I have to forcefully remove myself from the familiarity with it to appreciate how out there and utterly removed from any trends in any music decade it is. Going acoustic was also a strange decision for them to make, having just been named "The best American Rock Band" by the Rolling Stones.

    Out of Time
    The album is full of random instruments, there is the mandolin of course, strings, organ, melodica, clarinet, saxophones (in a good way this time!) and my favourite, the harpsichord. It all works, because one of it great strengths are the arrangements. They manage to include a lot of ideas, harmonies (the background vocals game is strong on this album) and somehow still make it sound light and accessible. I'm particularly found of the way the strings come in at the latter parts of Low and Half a World Away.

    The album in general sounds light, but has a few songs, which already hint at the melancholic, darker mood of Automatic for the People. Low, a hypnotic baseline, which is elevated by the background organ and string arrangement, Belong and Country Feedback, with Bucks sustained lead guitar and feedback effect, which would reappear at Automatic for the People..

    The album to a big part sounds so light (even though most songs are in minor key) because of the background vocals. There are a lot of Mills vocals on this album. This album has two songs in which he sings lead, Near Wild Heaven and Texarcana. Texarcana even has lyrics written by him. On the 25 anniversary edition (god, I'm old!) they have old demos, and the demo from Texarcana has Stipe singing lead with completely different lyrics. He just never finished it, so Mills rewrote it. The only other lyrics (I know of) by Mills were on Don't Go Back To Rockville in '84. Near Wild Heaven is THE Mike Mills song. It's just so sunny and upbeat. It is also the first occurrence of Stipes patented "babababa" background vocals, which would reappear on their cover of Love is All Around. Sadly Out of Time is also the last album he gets to sing lead.

    One song on this album, however, is a serious musical misstep we have to address. Worse than the saxophone solo on Document. And I know what everyone is thinking, but I'm not talking about Shiny Happy People here. It is Radio Song. The first REM song I would actually call bad (only whatever Around the Sun is can compare in horribleness). The song is even worse in context, the whole album is timeless and then you have this one rap part, which a) completely clashes with the rest of the song and b) dates the album immediately (rap styles changes a lot over the years). Worse, Stipe is attempting some rap adjacent speak - singing, which fails utterly and REM have never sounded so white. Now that I digitalized my record collection, I just removed this song, now Out of Time starts with Losing my Religion, which is a good first song anyway.

    Shout outs:

  • Shiny Happy People does not deserve the ire it has been getting. Just like Stand from Green, the silliness of it makes me happy. It exists in 3 stages: 1. the song and it's lyrics, which leaves you wondering if this is supposed to be ironic. 2. the video, which will just leave you utterly confused. 3. The Sesame Street performance, which will lead to blissful acceptance that this song exists.

  • The harpsichord on Half a World Away makes me so happy. I really need to know who had the idea (and thank them). It even does the baroque arpeggios, which somehow perfectly fit into the song, while simultaneously being ridiculously out there.

  • Losing my Religion is one of the best songs in Rock/Pop history. I know people got a bit tired of it, as it has been endlessly played, but if you take the time listening to it, you noticed how intrinsic the mandolin part is, how well arranged it is and how it breaks a lot of pop rules and is still weirdly catchy. I do however think, that it did not blow up (and moved REM to stardom) on musical merit alone (sorry, guys). I think the title (and Christians getting upset, because they did not know that "losing my religion" = getting upset / angry in the American South), gave it a lot of attention and this was amplified by the music video. Everyone still knows the video. It is one of the best music video ever made, it defiantly stood out in the early 90s, when music videos were still new. I think REM getting as big as they got, partly thanks to MTV, is one of the reason they lost a lot of street cred and were told to have "sold out" with Out of Time.

  • Closing thoughts: REM decided to release a weird, baroque, acoustic album, after they have been hailed as the next great American Rock Band, against all trends in the commercial or alternative music scene (this was the start of grunge after all). And somehow the stars aligned and they became world famous with it. Saying they sold out with the album is some weird a posterior reasoning, using success as an indicator for selling out. This album is great, if you do what I did and remove Radio Song off it. Then it is a short album of 10 perfect songs, only surpassed by the next one, Automatic for the People, an album fused to my soul.

    I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Green

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    Green is the first album after REM moved from IRS to Warner Bros. The pressure was on with this album. They had to prove themselves to their new record company and had to deal with accusations of "selling out" after moving to a major label. Their main reason for moving was unhappiness with overseas distribution combined with a guarantee of full creative freedom, but they also got something between 8- 12 million out of it. Peter Buck used some of his new disposable income to purchase a mandolin and learned how to play it basically overnight. As a result some songs of the album are strange acoustic experiments, with mandolin as a main instrument. At the time, they mus have seemed like some fun little experiments, like King of Birds on Document, which had a dulcimer as a lead instrument. They are stuck between off beat bubble gum pop songs and Document style rock songs. I like to believe that REM played the bubble gum pop songs whenever someone from the record company came to visit the studio and the acoustic songs were secretly recorded in their back yard.

    The bubble gum pop songs dominate the album. They are all a bit off beat, Pop Song 89 is ironic, Get Up is about Mills liking to sleep in and Stand is a pop song on steroids. 11 is sweet though and makes excellent use of Mills as second vocals.
    The Document style songs are, unsurprisingly, political or dark. There are themes of war (Orange Crush, World Leader Pretend) unrest (Turn You Inside Out) and environmentalism (I Remember California). The chorus of Orange Crush has a cool call and response going on between Mills and Stipe. Turn You Inside Out has amazing background / second vocals going on and a really nice lead guitar by Buck.
    Last there are the acoustic experiments. As my history with REM started with Out of Time, they did not seem out of the ordinary to me, when I listened to Green the first time. I wonder what people thought when they heard Hairshirt or The Wrong Child (the lyrics are really strange here, too. Amplified childhood trauma). The stand out song, not only from the acoustic songs, but from the whole album is You Are The Everything.

    Shout outs:
  • Mike Mills used to oversleep and turn up late to recording sessions. So the lyrics of Get Up are all about how life is hard and you want to just sleep, but have to go and do stuff. It's the most relatable REM song (or any song) ever. Life is unfair, I oversleep and come late to work all the time , no one ever wrote a song for me, all I get told is to correct the sign in times at the end of the month.

  • Stand is kind of amazing. It has this over the top organ / carnival riff, has not one, but two key changes and the lyrics are what would happen if aliens tried to write a pop song. It's an over the top pop song on a sugar rush.

  • You Are The Everything starts with the sound of insects chirping in the dark (hence my theory that they recorded all the weird acoustic songs secretly at night in their backyard) and the whole song is the music version of a warm summer night in the country side. Bucks mandolin and Mills accordion (is there an instrument he cannot play?) create a beautiful atmospheric soundscape and Stipes lyrics flow over them. Hands down, best song of the album.

  • Closing thoughts: Green is my least favourite album from the Warner era with Bill Berry, but this is the era, which includes Out of Time and Automatic for the People, so this does not say much. With the next album my history with REM starts. I think no one really knew where REM would go next. Would they go full on pop? Have they finally sold out completely? They had had some hits with the bubble gum pop songs, like Stand after all. Instead, they chose the experimental acoustic songs as their inspiration for Out of Time and somehow managed to become world famous with an album featuring a mandolin and a harpsichord.

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