Sometimes it's almost a relief when great bands go astray. It's a kind
of housecleaning, a way of clearing space for new stuff, of letting go
of a part of your past that may have outlived its usefulness. But damn
R.E.M. -- it's getting harder and harder to care about them as the years
go on, and yet records like their latest, "Adventures in Hi-Fi," keep
making it impossible to write them off.
I remember being ready to throw 1992's "Automatic for the People" on my
personal couldn't-care-less pile. I'd had it up to there with Michael
Stipe and his exceptional cleverness, his coy
square-peg-in-a-round-hole routine -- until I heard "Man on the Moon."
The song shivered with wistfulness, outlining the contours of
uncertainty as if it were tracing the subtle arch of an eyebrow. It
spoke both of a desire to connect and of an appreciation for the late
comedian/actor Andy Kaufman, as if there were no reason the two ideas
shouldn't be at home in the same song. "Man on the Moon" may have been Stipe's
admission that pop culture can seem eminently disposable, a glittery
fog that we sink into when the mood strikes us, and yet still be the
thing that makes us feel most alive. He keyed in to the idea that our
enjoyment of pop culture demands that we focus more on, say, the
passing of fads than on the passing of people, because the latter is
so often too much to bear: How can you know how much you'll mourn for
a certain singer, actor, or comedian, until -- Poof! -- he's suddenly
"New Adventures in Hi-Fi" contains nothing as potent or affecting as
"Man on the Moon," and Stipe is mostly just pulling his tired
boy-genius schtick, being so willfully obtuse and arty you can almost
picture the sweat on his brow. And yet "New Adventures" achieves the
dubious honor of being both kind of lousy and strangely compelling.
It would be so nice to be able to just throw the disc away, to yank
it from its box and fling it like a Frisbee, but the sad truth is
that, probably, bits and pieces of it would only come back to haunt
you. You might find some of Peter Buck's Led Zeppelin-via-Appalachia
guitar motifs reeling through your brain, or remember the sensation of
being wrapped up in a giant swirl of drum and bass, the sound curled
around you like a cashmere muffler. Even Stipe, pain in the ass that
he is, seems to be alternately feeding us that old hipster hucksterism
thing and reaching out to us. (What do you make of lines like "I'm
drowning me.../I am in the place where I should be/I am breathing
water.../you know a body's got to breathe"?)
Denser than the band's last LP, 1994's "Monster," "New Adventures" is
a record that sounds uneasy in its own skin, sometimes oppressively
dank, sometimes overwrought in its attempts to intrigue and engage us.
It's not an easy record to slip into. "How the West Was Won and Where
It Got Us" shambles along on a heavy-bottomed beat, an insistent but
delicate piano line pushing it forward almost against its will (it's
like some weird sea creature that drags its big butt across the ocean
floor on tiny little feet). Stipe's voice is like damp velvet on the
song, mushroomy and oppressive, but his moodiness seems wasted on
go-nowhere lyrics like "I didn't wear glasses 'cause I thought it
might rain/now I can't see anything."
Stipe's wordplay shoots right over the top most of the time (in
"Departure," he pulls off a dandy rhyme that enfolds "hang glider,"
"spider," "disposable lighter," and "William Greider"), but though it
may have that swing, it don't mean a thing. And are we supposed to
laugh or weep when, on "New Test Leper," he sings with exceptional vim
and vigor, "Call me leper, hey?"
But even if you have to fight your way through a morass of ridiculous,
pretentious lyrics, there's still the chance that there'll be at least
one song on "New Adventures" that you just can't shake. For me, it's
"Electrolite," a slight little country love song that Stipe sings with
uncharacteristic flirtiness and charm. "I'm Martin Sheen/I'm Steve
McQueen, I'm Jimmy Dean/You are a star tonight...You might eclipse
the moon tonight/Electrolite, you're outta sight," he sings, the words
tumbling out as if he could almost lose control over them. He ends the
song with the lines, "I'm not scared, I'm outta here," and he's funny
and touching at once.
It's one of the rare instances when I find myself connecting with
Stipe more as a human being than as an artist -- and it's a reminder
that as maddening as he is, he now and then surprises and delights and
moves me, and so he probably means more to me than I care to admit.
Someday years from now, when I'm 80 or so, I might pick up a newspaper
and learn that Michael Stipe is gone. I'm sure I'll say, "I never could
stand that guy." And then maybe I'll put on "Man on the Moon," and feel
something else entirely.