2 Stars out of 4
The reason that I have always appreciated 90’s albums like Out Of Time, Automatic, Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi is that each of them incorporates that ‘classic R.E.M. sound’ that reverberates through each of them. I still remember the time that I bought the Automatic for the People the day it came out and said to myself, that finally the band had returned to that “Classic” sound.
Bad jokes and sarcasm aside, the new R.E.M. album does try to leech off some of the sights and sounds from the past instead of moving to the future. This album feels like New Adventures in Hi Fi’s twin, although never really matching up.
I would easily say that Hi-Fi is my least favorite of the 90’s R.E.M. albums (although the album is still very solid and would give it a 3.5 stars out of 4 review) but I would say that the pieces that did get me interested in the record or at least keep it fresh are some of the songs that push the envelope. For me it was songs like E-Bow, Leave and How the West Was Won that pushed the boundaries a bit in the way that the R.E.M. canon had progressed.
That was some of the beauty of going out and getting a new R.E.M. album at that time was that they did try to challenge themselves in different ways from album to album. Even through Reveal, there is growth or at least a thematic sound that they are trying to achieve. Around the Sun fell short but Accelerate returned to this trend and I see Collapse as never really striving anywhere.
At the time of it’s release, New Adventures at least felt like a growth forward, or at least an extension past Monster. There was a bit of direction as Peter Buck had alluded to at the time of trying to make an entire album on the road that extended not just in the music but also in the themes of the music.
This album does not feel like a step forward but rather step backwards and while the music at times is very solid, the lyrics and singing becomes a slight distraction.
As has been described, this album is much more personal than some of the prior efforts (Around the Sun, Accelerate), however, as a personal album is concerned, it’s a matter of connecting with the songs. For me, the album just sort of seems to be there, a tale or multitude of songs that just do not feel thematically to take me anywhere and at times a very boring musical choice that sounds more like one of those alternative-flavor-of-the-month acts that have made it big.
Discoverer and All the Best do not harken back to the progressive R.E.M. of the 80s with a leadoff like Begin the Begin and These Days nor does it try to give you the glam with What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? And Crush with Eyeliner. When taking those albums there is, if anything, substance and not just what feels like a blank filler of a song.
It would be almost as if the album seems to be about nothing but there is no examination or rumination of what is wrong. Uberlin particularly rambles on without any thoughts on what is going on around them. The songs are vague but not in a good way.
While lyrics do not need to be a central premise of a song, they do when you are not hiding them. As the years have gone on, Stipe has become more front and center and it doesn’t take more than a couple listens or a quick glance online or YouTube in that there is no secret to what is being said. However, the quality of work on some of these songs could be equal to that of Curly of the Three Stooges. I am not expecting a masterpiece but I am expecting something that I can put on the stereo and not have people run out of the apartment.
To me the difference between R.E.M. and any other jangy-pop-rickenbacker-rock-alternative-indie-college group was their ability to be the thinking person’s band, a band that you can rock out to with a purpose. There was a way that they could be progressive without being too preachy, to explore without giving away the mystery, to be intimate without sounding too corny. When the band came out with Be Mine, I believe it was Scott Litt that mentioned after a take that it sounded like a Whitney Houston song, something that bothered the band.
Consider the opening lyrics for ‘It Happened Today”:
This is not a parable
This is a terrible
This is a terrible thing
Yes I will rhyme that, after, after all I've done today
I have earned my wings
It happened today. Hooray! Hooray!
It happened. Hip, hip, hooray!
Now of course, the song plays itself as the next Hey Jude, but fails in many respects including but not limited to the corny use of earning wings and “Hip Hip Hooray”. I mean, let’s all join hands and sing Kumbaya. It is also indicative of the problem that I spoke of above that I do not connect with the song. I do not feel any connection to anything that was written above so how can I sit here and say how great a song it is when I am getting nothing out of it?
‘It Happened Today’ is pretty much the trend to write something relatively meaningless and so I am left feeling quite bored by the entire product. The album is filled with more fluff than substance and when Michael Stipe is not making up corny phrases or bad rhymes, he is stealing from his past albums using the same phrases that made them popular, (‘Tick Tock’, ‘4 am’, ‘The storm. . . . ‘). With varying degrees of success or failure he’s sounding more like an artist that is covering Michael Stipe of yore and would be curious if he sits and writes fan mail to himself.
If the lyrics do not bother you then the singing does. Once lauded as a crooner by Bono, his singing at times feels stilted. He enunciates every word on Uberlin. He has gotten in the habit of shouting on others to the point where you might have to ask yourself if it was better if the band just came out with an instrumental version of the album. It just does not feel natural and while the sound of his voice has changed for sure over the past 30 years, the delivery seems to be the bigger problem.
Even the stronger songs like Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter and ‘That Someone is You’ with their simple charm cannot squeeze a good review out of me.
I know that some might point to the song Blue as being pretty innovative, but I look at that as the bastard child of E-Bow + Country Feedback giving Patti Smith the same luxury she had over 10 years prior of offering her vocals to a song but could have done itself a favor by just ending up as a B-Side somewhere on a single. By ending the album with a snippet of Discoverer is just not all that impressive and feels almost as if the Credits are running through my head while doing so.
While some might suggest that I have been too critical of the band, I question how far is a band supposed to drop before they become irrelevant? I thought that Accelerate was not as much a return to form but a moment when the band made a conscious effort to at least feel like a band again. I am not getting that same love on this release and I do not see how this album would supersede those albums. For me this is the most out-of-the-box bored I have ever been with an R.E.M. album.
For many out there that might feel that I am trying to relive past expectations, the simple fact of the matter is that even without these expectations this is just not music that I would listen to right now. While the album does not fall flat on it’s face, it’s simply R.E.M. by numbers and if I wanted to waste my time listening to a Tired Pony I would do so.