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Dark and beautiful
on 23 November 2002
After the globe-conquering high of Automatic For The People, REM looked in danger of burning out, with the not-quite-properly-realised Monster and the stress of the tour which followed. But out of that tour's ashes rose this astonishing collection. It became perhaps inevitably their darkest album yet, but, crucially, that never makes it hard to listen to.
It's pretty long at 66 minutes, but it hardly ever drains the listener. It's a collection of studio takes, live performances and soundchecks, and a lot of the energy filters through onto the CD.
The album opens in characteristically uncharacteristic fashion, with the distorted beats and edgy piano line of How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us, a stark and twisted country-rock piece with a unnervingly off-kilter piano solo in the middle. The Wake-Up Bomb could hardly be more different, a blazing glam-rock storm which carries the listener along on a tide of acidic sentiment. "I had to write the great American novel," sneers Michael Stipe sarcastically, "I had a neutron bomb." The interesting thing about New Adventures is that, whereas on Monster they tried desperately to rock out and always sounded a bit contrived, here they do it with great natural ease.
New Test Leper has a wonderfully pretty, lilting melody. It tells of a AIDS sufferer's awful experience on a TV chat show, and Stipe does it brilliantly, making his character totally sympathetic without ever being patronising. The lyrics are actually essential reading. "When I tried to tell my story, they cut me off to take a break. I sat silent five commercials - I had nothing left to say."
Undertow is one of the album's most intriguing tracks. Based around just two chords, it feels oppressive and claustrophobic, but in a positive way. It intrigues most because it sounds not unlike Nirvana. The verses in particular sound a lot like the verses on the 'new' song, You Know You're Right, and Stipe's vocals are every bit as dark as Kurt Cobain's tended to be; "I am breathing water, I am breathing water; you know a body's got to breathe."
After Undertow comes the single E-Bow The Letter. It is a pleasant surprise that in our bloated, airbrushed charts this became as big a hit as it did, because it's DARK. Really dark, and not a little scary. Stipe's delivery is pitch-perfect, and contrasts perfectly with Patti Smith's vampiric promise, "I'll take you over." In my opinion it's REM's best single ever, and one of the best singles of the 90s.
Leave, which follows, opens with a haunting, delicate acoustic guitar riff for a minute, before an unhinged car alarm kicks in. It doesn't go away for six minutes. It could have been immensely irritating, but in fact it's a stroke of sonic genius. Beneath that racket, the song is up to its eyes in its own undiluted misery, "I lost myself in sorrow, I lost myself in pain, I lost myself in clarity," before finally drowning in a sea of feedback.
Departure rocks with a visceral, burning energy that makes you wonder how amazing it must sound live, with Michael Stipe screaming, "GO, GO, GO, YEAH!!" halfway through. The disillusion and pain return, however, with Bittersweet Me. Its chord changes are refreshingly intelligent, while Stipe admits, "I'm tired and naked, I don't know what I'm hungry for, I don't know what I want anymore."
What follows defies all expectations. After all that misery, pain and darkness, REM do a 180-degree turn and produce quite possibly one of the sweetest, most affecting love songs ever. Its verses display rich, lush imagery ("I'll by the sky above the Ganges, I'll be the vast and stormy sea, I'll be the lights that guide you inwards"), while its chorus simply proclaims, "You and me." The extraordinary sweeping guitar phrases at the end just round off a perfect song.
Binky The Doormat is most notable for the stunning interaction between Stipe and Mike Mills in the chorus. "Have you lost your place?" asks Stipe, to which Mills counters, "No way, no way." As demonstrated time and time again on this album, particularly on Departure and Undertow, Mills' vocals are the perfect complement for Stipe's, especially when used contrapuntally.
Zither is a fragile two-minute instrumental, one of only two inessential tracks on the album, along with Low Desert, which strives a little too hard to be bluesy and 'widescreen' and sacrifices the memorable tunes of the other songs. But sandwiched between the two is an absolute gem, So Fast So Numb, a full-on, turbocharged interpretation of a drug-fuelled affair. It opens with a drum line reminiscent of that which opened Orange Crush, and the tension and pace never lets up. "Listen," cries Stipe to his troubled subject. "This is now, this is here, this is me, this is what I wanted you to see." It carries an urgency rarely heard before in an REM song.
The closer, Electrolite, is perfect. REM know how to close out an album, as Find The River on Automatic demonstrated, and this is every bit as good. A beautiful, twilit piano ballad, it rejects the pain of the rest of the album and offers instead optimism and hope. "Twentieth century, go to sleep," purrs Stipe. "I'm not scared." It's a happy ending to a long, tumultous journey. Will REM ever produce an album as intense, beautiful or satisfying as this again? If not - well, this is some peak.