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Men on the Move

Anton Corbijn

Rock Geographers: In its best songs, R.E.M. depicts a moving American landscape.

On 'New Adventures in Hi-Fi,' R.E.M. describes a whirling world where language and sound evoke more than mere meaning

By Gina Arnold

MOST NATIVE Californians are familiar with Interstate 5: a vast and scrubby stretch of plain that has more in common with Nebraska than with the popular blue-green conception of our oh-so-lovely state. I-5 is intolerably boring, even on a golden summer afternoon, but last week, my drive along it was alleviated by a cassette of the latest album by R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Warner Bros.).

After all, R.E.M.'s music belongs in motion. Songs like "Driver 8," "Stand," "Maps and Legends," "Cuyahoga" and "Nightswimming" are all about places--the humble nooks and crannies of our little America. And so often elsewhere, Michael Stipe's streamy lyrics depict a moving landscape. Something about their sound--the plucked mandolin strings and chiming guitars--also serves to evoke a time and place. In fact, if I had to pick one word to sum up R.E.M.'s subject matter, it would be "geography." Perhaps that's why some of my greatest musical memories involve a long stretch of freeway and a cassette of R.E.M.

I'd almost forgotten this quality in the years since Green--R.E.M.'s commercial breakthrough album of 1988, and the one that divides R.E.M. from its (and my) sonic youth. Since then, the band's murmurs and jangles have become far more intelligible, and its devastatingly great singles--"Orange Crush," "Losing My Religion," "Man in the Moon"--can now be heard in almost nonstop rotation on radio.

But as delicious as it always is to hear a great song amid a host of mediocre ones, it is an entirely different feeling from putting on a 45-minute-long stretch of, say, 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction. Thus, by becoming commercially viable, R.E.M. imperceptibly changed its place in the musical spectrum. Moreover, two years ago, R.E.M. released Monster, the first album by the group that I didn't really like, and a friend had just informed me that New Adventures in Hi-Fi was more of the same.

Nevertheless, last week I put the new cassette in my car for a three-hour journey to Chico, pressing "play" just as my car flickered through those golden hills that guard the entrance to the Central Valley. And as I started to smell the hot hay of summer and the tape began to play, I was immediately, instantly, gripped by a strange feeling of glee. My heart literally pounded, and then it soared, because clearly my friend was wrong.

This was the R.E.M. I love and hadn't even known I missed: the guitar textures, the flat timbre of Stipe's voice, the gorgeous sonic panoramas and the colorful but vague, highly leading lyrics. Outside my car, the fields flew by, and inside I was once again in Rickenbacker heaven.

THE NEW ALBUM is surprisingly beautiful, and it's not hard to guess why. It follows a year-long tour that was preceded by a five-year-break from playing together live. By all accounts, the members of R.E.M. have always gotten along with one another, but however well they were able to concoct good songs in the studio--and parts of Automatic for the People are very good indeed--it is only by playing together live and loose and night after night that they have been able to reconnect with the things that made them so great in the first place.

Adventures in Hi-Fi was recorded on the run at sound checks and studios all over America--in Phoenix, Detroit, Seattle, Memphis, Orlando, Charleston, Boston and Atlanta to be exact--but it has a seamless feel to it nonetheless. Stipe may well be the best extemporaneous singer of our era, and Hi-Fi is riddled with his green, articulated visions.

The record speeds from place to place, from Singapore to Salt Lake City (the latter "in spring over the salt flats and pale stone"). Throughout, Stipe measures his thought processes out loud. At one point, he flicks channels on a hotel television set and comments, "Judge not lest ye be judged/what a beautiful refrain." Maria Callas, James Dean, Steve McQueen and T. Rex all make brief appearances, as do such disparate yet common sights such as a homegrown baptism, a lonely desert radio tower and Mulholland Drive.

Those who only know R.E.M. post-Green may need a couple of listens to get the hang of Stipe's fast-paced musings. The rest of us grew up with his unique songwriting idiom; we were taught by him to read between the lines.

And what lines they are! So many beautiful bits fill the album. Everyone will have a different favorite, but my own include Stipe's description of a waiting audience ("fields of poppies, little pearls, all the boys and all the girls, sweet-toothed, each and every one a little scary"), the passionate singing on "So Fast, So Numb," the terrifying fear behind the gist of "Bittersweet Me," the strangely flecked background of "Leave."

And the list goes on. The record delivers an embarrassment of riches. "Bittersweet Me" and "Electrolite" are deeply pretty songs, complicated, yet singable. "Be Mine"--a dreamy list of ultraromantic needs and wants, akin to Shakespeare's famous sonnet--is a "One I Love" for grownups. "New Test Leper" carries the faintest flavor of political overtones as Stipe gently talks back to a TV preacher who's spouting out biblical clichés: " 'We're all lost and disillusioned'--what an awful thing to say!"

Although at first confusing, upon several hearings "E-Bow the Letter" disengages itself into a gorgeous and evocative stream-of-consciousness description of fame, fear, love, hero worship and, ultimately, redemption, as does the rest of the record.

EVEN THE BITS that aren't quite as strong are fun to listen to. When I first heard it at Shoreline in the spring of '94, "The Wake-up Bomb" was a confusing ruckus, much more in line with the formally stated hard rock of Monster. Here, the song makes a bit more sense, as Stipe announces, "I'd rather be anywhere doing anything."

The "here it comes" chorus of "Departure" is strongly evocative of "Hyena," while the title alone of "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us" is R.E.M.iniscent of "The End of the World As We Know it (And I Feel Fine)."

But who really cares? Musically, Adventures in Hi-Fi plays on all of R.E.M.'s strengths. It offers a rich mine of their best shots, of ringing guitars and interesting percussive parts, from the scratchy background of "Undertow" to the cool synthesizer lines of "E-Bow the Letter" and "Leave." And over it all rises Stipe's scratchy howl, charged with feeling, describing a whirling world where language and sound evoke more than mere meaning, catapulting the listener into a deep vortex of pure feeling.

Those who follow music-business news may be aware that R.E.M. recently re-signed a five-record deal with Warner Bros. for $80 million. That's the kind of salary that makes one wonder if anybody can be worth it--particularly a 16-year-old band that is being paid for its 13th­18th albums. After all, like ballplayers, rock stars have a tendency to outlive their usefulness.

We can all rest easier in the assured knowledge that record companies, like ball clubs, don't make deals they lose money on. If R.E.M. is making $80 million, the company stands to make much, much more. Besides, Adventures in Hi-Fi proves that R.E.M. deserves such riches, and if it doesn't, no rock group does. That this band--that any band--can come up with a record this strong 16 years into its career proves that it is indeed one of the all-time greats.

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From the September 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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