Warner Bros. paid $80 million for this? Hard to believe a decade ago Robert Christgau was praising "this talented minor band," harder still to believe this is where they headed after that decade passed. New Adventures in Hi-Fi is the new Southern rock -- the sound of miniature rock and roll amplified on the arena stage until the intimate moments disappear in cavernous nooks and crannies: We can't hear you here in the back row -- and you can't see us. It's a record without much mystery or magic, without a beginning or an end, but one retaining the deceptively soft middle that made Automatic for the People so essential in 1992 and Monster nearly intolerable two years later -- the difference between a documentary and a commercial. Amazing what a loud guitar will do for a band that never needed one, a band that used to bury the lead singer's obscure lyrics underneath a rustle instead of a feedback scream.
Most of these songs ("The Wake-Up Bomb," "Binky the Doormat," "Electrolite") were debuted on R.E.M.'s tour last year, and they sound now as they did then -- like Monster hangovers, more chain-saw drones that never fully form into melody or memory. New Adventures in Hi-Fi is R.E.M.'s Running On Empty, a recorded-on-the-road album completed on-stage and during sound checks and backstage sessions. Where there once was humor in the music and depth to the honest introspection, all we're left with now is an album from rock stars about their own rock stardom. They went on a world tour and all they brought us was this mediocre album.
R.E.M. begged off touring for years, and they were reminded last year that the road is indeed a terrible place for grown men: Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry all hopped off the bus and into the ambulance during the Monster tour. And this record reflects the turmoil spent away from home, which is why it's actually a damned confusing work -- it's either a brilliant joke or a sloppy failure. There are some wonderful musical moments inside this mess (the sporadic piano of "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," the off-kilter harmonies on "Undertow," the simple guitar line of "Be Mine" that builds toward a wrenching climax), but they're undermined the minute Stipe starts misappropriating Maya Angelou: "I heard the caged bird sing." They were better when you couldn't make out the words, better before they started feeling sorry for themselves for being so rich.
"I've had enough, I've seen enough, I had it all and given up," Stipe sings on "The Wake-Up Bomb," complaining and bragging all at once. "I won the race, broke the cup, I drank it all, I spit it up.... Atomic, supersonic, what a joke, I'm done.... I'd rather be anywhere, doing anything, yeah." Later, on "Bittersweet Me," he complains of "innocence lost," explaining, "I don't know what I want any more." Um, shut up?
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Adventures is, in the end, the product of a band eleven albums into a career in which each record has followed its predecessor's lead and taken the latter's intention and sound one step further. The gentleness of Murmur begat the enigmatic beauty of Reckoning, which led to the psychedelic country-pop of Fables of the Reconstruction ... and so on. Each record has been the inevitable, obvious puzzle piece, and Adventures is no different -- Monster taken apart and put together with a few pieces in different places. Except there are no revelations to be had here as there were on Reckoning or Fables or Automatic, nothing except the musings of superstars trying to come to grips with stadium success. "This story's a sad one told many times," Stipe bitches and moans on the first song ("How the West," et cetera), which only elicits the question from the get-go: Then why the hell tell it again?