Saturday, 16 January 2010

New Adventures in Hi-Fi
Warner Bros. Records
Rating: 4.5/5

From the beginning of the tom-dominated drum riff and percussive piano of the Dire Straits-esque 'How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us', it is evident that this album is going to bear a different feel to R.E.M's efforts up to this point. Written largely on the road, the album cover is a black and white picture showing nothing but barren desert as far as the horizon, the skyline neatly broken by an outcrop of rock in the centre. Indeed, this image both informs and frames the album; it is the context by which this expansive collection of songs can be understood.

The production of this album, along with the writing itself is a subtle departure from the radio-friendly of Monster and Automatic for the People. Whilst still being distinctly R.E.M.'s trademark jangle, somehow this is bigger, more substantial. The sound of a band lost in an empty landscape of nothingness and trying to occupy it with something of their own creation. In any case, it's a huge sound, more anthemic than before, and in an empirical sense at least measurably longer. The album is over sixty-five minutes long, and few of the songs clock in at less than five each. 'Leave', the album's highlight and centrepiece, is over seven minutes long alone. From 1:01 when the drums kick in it's an unstoppable landslide of a song, the incessant sample at its core keeping the mood tense while the music builds around it to a release that even today I feel in the same way that I did when I first heard it (as a hormonal fifteen-year old).

In 'E-Bow the Letter' and 'New Test Leper', Michael Stipe has two of his finest lyrical contributions to the band's repertoire- "when I tried to tell my story/they cut me off, took a break/I sat silent five commercials/I had nothing left to say", and in the more bluesy rock of 'So Fast, So Numb', 'Undertow', and 'Low Desert', Peter Buck manages three of the most confident guitar-led tracks as well. Between tracks like these and the more acoustic opener, 'How the West Was Won...', 'Bittersweet Me', and closer 'Electrolite' there's a lot of variation on offer, all held together by the overall vibe of the album. For a time as a teenager, this album sat next to Battle of Los Angeles by Rage, Metallica's Black Album, Radiohead's The Bends, Muse's Origin of Symmetry, Nevermind and Coldplay's Rush of Blood to the Head as how I defined rock music. Although my definition has changed since then, however I choose to define it this fantastic collection of songs still belongs there.

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