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Wednesday 10 July 2024

What A Beautiful Refrain

In 1996 R.E.M. made what would turn out to be the final album made by the four piece band of Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry. The drummer, Bill Berry, left the group in 1997 and although they carried on as a three- piece until 2013 they never really reached the heights they did on the run of ten albums they made between Murmur in 1983 and New Adventures In Hi- Fi thirteen years later. Much of New Adventures In Hi- Fi was written and partially recorded on the road, at soundchecks while they toured Monster, a mixed bag of an album that saw them tour the big venues. Many of the songs on New Adventures... reflect the album's on the road origins, songs with titles like Departure, Leave, Undertow and Low Desert. There's also a sadness, a mournful quality running through it, countered by some brash riffing and Stipe continuing the rock star persona he developed for the Monster tour- Wake Up Bomb and So Fast, So Numb- but the melancholy pervades. The final song, Electrolite, makes sure that things finish on a high of sorts, a gorgeous song celebrating the end of the 20th century, Mulholland Drive, Steve McQueen, Martin Sheen and Jimmy Dean, that closes with Stipe singing, 'I'm not scared/ I'm outta here'. 

It's an album I think of as a vinyl record, the four sides mini- albums in their right. By this point CDs were outselling vinyl and the record industry had scaled vinyl production right back. Bands were making CD length albums, not vinyl length ones. New Adventures.. is R.E.M.'s longest album. Most listeners I imagine think of New Adventures In Hi- Fi as a CD album, fourteen songs in succession but for me its always been a vinyl album with four distinct groups of songs. Side one of the vinyl opens with How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us, a typically untypical way to start an R.E.M. album, low key and led by drums and bass, piano providing the melodic backing to Stipe's vocal. Peter Buck's mandolin, his acoustic and electric guitars are nowhere to be heard until the second song, Wake Up Bomb bursts in with the big guitar riffs and a glam/ grunge stomp. Side one concludes with New Test Leper, the song on the album that sounds the most typically R.E.M.- led by acoustic guitar, with some understated Mike Mills organ and one of those universal Stipe lyrics, one where he plugs himself into the human experience and comes up with something that seems both personal and universal. 

New Test Leper

The lyric opens with a nod to Michael's heroine Patti Smith who kicked off Piss Factory with a line about Jesus. 'I can't say that I love Jesus', Stipe sings,'that would be a hollow claim'. He goes on to quote Christ, 'judge not lest ye be judged' and then laments the behaviour of a TV host and a live studio audience. Stipe was watching one of those TV programmes where members of the public and their deeds are paraded in front of an audience, an Oprah/ Jeremy Kyle type show. He found himself empathising with the woman whose life was being pulled apart for entertainment. Michael sings from the point of view of the woman, 'When I tried to tell my story/ They cut me off to take a break/ I sat silent for five commercials/ I had nothing left to say'. He then switches back to being the observer again and concludes, 'What a sad parade'. Buck's guitar jangles beautifully, backed by Bill Berry's drums and shakers and Mike Mills plays a superb lead bassline and that lovely ascending organ part that appears and re- appears. 

New Test Leper was recorded at Seattle's Bad Animals studio, resurrected from a tape Michael had of the song from a soundcheck. A second version, acoustic and recorded live at the studio, was used as a B- side for Bittersweet Me. Stipe has said that New Test Leper is his 'crowning achievement' and its easy to see why he would see it that way- it's a song that displays his humanity and empathy and done in such a way that it strikes a chord whenever I hear it. 

New Test Leper (Acoustic Version)


Martin said...

Yes. There's a case to be made for New Adventures as their last essential album, but wherever you stand on that debate (and I am not sure) New Test Leper is an amazing piece of work.

Tom W said...

Oddly this is the REM album I know best, because my brother bought me it one Christmas, and it's still favourite. Though I had it as a CD and it's exactly as you said, a 14-song travelogue.

Swiss Adam said...

Martin- there is a case that this is their last essential album and I think its one I buy into although I know people who have a big shout for Up. I think losing Bill destabilised them as a unit and as a songwriters and by the time they'd worked out how to function as a 3 piece, they'd run out of things to say. There are some good songs post- Bill but few/ no essential albums for me.

Tom- maybe, like the Fall, our favourite REM is the one we hear first