After the fairly uncompromising rock of Monster, on their 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi R.E.M. recaptured some of the variety and creativity of earlier albums. Largely recorded on the road at soundchecks during the Monster tour, it’s not afraid to sprawl, and with so many different elements on show, while that album dragged, New Adventures… is far better able to sustain itself over its running time. Some running time: perhaps through being recorded in live settings, something of the jam spirit has taken over R.E.M., with tracks regularly stretching over five minutes, and seven in the case of Leave.
Being on the road, moving from town to town, and the long, unchanging periods of travel that necessitates, these too could be cited as reasons behind the album’s length. Opening track How the West was Won and Where it Got Us could be passages glimpsed from the back of a tour bus, the alarm sound that permeates Leave could resemble any of the monotonies that accompany long periods on the road. For the hard-core international business traveller it could very literally represent an unwelcome middle of the night disturbance; a more romantic reading is to think of the headache-sunlight as it flickers on and off behind the trees, observed through the window of a train.
For the first single from the album, the band chose E-bow the letter. Peter Buck described it as a folk rock dirge; it’s the most arresting example of that minority genre, though. Dirgey elements crop up elsewhere, as if R.E.M. are subconsciously communicating a sense of weariness. They’ve been a band together, with an unchanged line-up, for over fifteen years; not much of it has been downtime. Recording partly on the road led to critics accusing the album of having a flat sound. Buck’s guitar is pushed back a bit from its up front role in Monster. When Mike Mills gets in with his normally refreshing counterpoint vocals, there’s a sense of uncertainty. When he repeatedly cries ‘No way!_ to Stipe during ‘Binky The Doormat_ it’s hard to be sure he really feels it.
The person who really wanted out, if not during the recording was, however, Bill Berry. During the European leg of a brutal tour that only Peter Buck would survive completely unscathed, mid-set in Switzerland, he suffered a ruptured aneurysm that wasn’t properly diagnosed until the day after it happened. He recovered well, and recovered fast, but by 1997 he decided he wanted out. New Adventures in Hi-Fi would be the last album with the full and original R.E.M. line-up.
Knowing this only makes Electrolite an even sweeter way to end the album: ostensibly a song about Los Angeles, and looking down over it, looking down at the lights, it’s also a song about bidding farewell to an era. In the lyric the era is the twentieth century, and icons of that time. As the last track on the last album on which all four original members of the band would play, it’s not hard to look at it as another sort of farewell.