Song of the Day #687: ‘New Test Leper’ – R.E.M.

I’ve talked about a couple of albums being R.E.M.’s most overrated, and now I arrive at an album I consider one of their most underrated.

1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi is a sprawling effort largely recorded during sound checks and rehearsals for their Monster tour, giving it a casual, ramshackle feel. It blends the rocking sound of Monster with the more acoustic flavors of the band’s earlier work.

I call the album underrated not because it was critically panned (on the contrary, it received strong reviews) or a dud on the charts (it sold reasonably well, though not at the levels of their previous three albums) but because in discussions of R.E.M.’s best work, I rarely see New Adventures in Hi-Fi mentioned. And I believe it absolutely belongs in that mix.

Granted, New Adventures in Hi-Fi might be a bit too sprawling. It runs 14 tracks but somehow seems even longer. Several of the more rollicking tracks (‘Leave,’ ‘Departure,’ ‘Bittersweet Me’ and ‘Binky the Doormat’) are grouped together at the center of the album when they might be better served if spread out.

But those are nitpicks. The songwriting on this album is among the band’s strongest, and sonically the record is superb. Songs such as opener ‘How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,’ first single ‘E-Bow the Letter’ and slow burner ‘Low Desert’ tap into the same country-fueled hard-luck atmosphere as ‘Country Feedback’… you feel them in your gut.

Album closer ‘Electrolite’ hearkens back to the soaring melodies of ‘Find a River’ and ‘Fall On Me.’ On album centerpiece ‘Leave,’ the band takes a big chance by building the whole song around a repeated siren sound that’s initially unnerving but ultimately manages to work.

In the weeks before New Adventures in Hi-Fi‘s release, I used to troll the modern rock radio station waiting to hear ‘E-Bow the Letter.’ I think I heard it once or twice for all my effort. This was before you could just download or stream a new song off the Web, before the days of Napster.

I was bummed that the album’s release date fell right in the middle of a work trip to the Dominican Republic (I worked for a travel magazine at the time). Such was my R.E.M. geekdom that I felt less excited about an all-expenses-paid trip to a beautiful Caribbean resort because the trip spanned a new release Tuesday. My then-fiance surprised me with the CD at the airport upon my return.

Finally, New Adventures in Hi-Fi marked what could be considered the final “true” R.E.M. album, because a year later drummer Bill Berry left the band. But I’ll get to that tomorrow.

I can’t say that I love Jesus
That would be a hollow claim.
He did make some observations
And I’m quoting them today.
”Judge not lest ye be judged.”
What a beautiful refrain.
The studio audience disagrees.
Have his lambs all gone astray?

Call me a leper
Call me a leper
Call me a leper

”You are lost and disillusioned”
What an awful thing to say.
I know this show doesn’t flatter.
It means nothing to me.
I thought I might help them understand
But what an ugly thing to see.
”I am not an animal”,
Subtitled under the screen.

Call me a leper
Call me a leper
Call me a leper

When I tried to tell my story
They cut me off to take a break.
I sat silent 5 commercials
I had nothing left to say
The talk show host was index-carded
All organized and blank
The other guests were scared and hardened
What a sad parade.

What a sad parade

Call me a leper
Call me a leper
Call me a leper

5 thoughts on “Song of the Day #687: ‘New Test Leper’ – R.E.M.

  1. Dana says:

    Very nice song. I’ll definitely have to give this album another listen, as I too have underrated it and written it off as a continuation of the Monster sound I largely did not like.

  2. Amy says:

    First, I’d like to point out that surprising your future husband at the airport with the album he’s been long awaiting negates, maybe, a thousand eye rolls or so. 😉

    Second, as I’m reading this post, I realize I’m not familiar with a single song on it by name. So I’m wondering if the fact that this album is “underrated” in the manner you suggest has something more to do with when it was released, how it was released, or the evolving lives of its fans than it does with the quality of the music. I mean, let’s face it, there are probably a lot fewer of you’s out there – engaged to be married, off on a “business” trip, yet trolling the radio stations and counting down the days to the album’s release – than there are me’s out there…. having no idea in retrospect where this album falls in R.E.M.’s album releases, other than that it’s a later release, one I couldn’t just walk over to the local college music store to purchase between classes.

    If, as we’ve suggested before on this blog, we hold certain albums dearest to our hearts – especially those first which server as our “entry point” to the artist or that we get to discover along with all of the bands’ other fans, then an album like this has very little chance to hold one of those special spots. How many college kids were discovering R.E.M. when this album came out? They likely were into… hell, I have no idea what they would have been into… but I highly doubt it was R.E.M.

    And the rest of us… we were all grown up.

    That said, I love the song you’ve posted today and am encouraged to go check out the album to (re?) discover some of the other songs you named.

  3. Clay says:

    If you know a song from this album it is likely ‘Electrolite,’ which I once put on a mixtape for you.

    Video here:

  4. Dana says:

    Yes, I do know “Eloctrolite” and like it quite a lot.

  5. Flor says:

    As I mentioned before, my favorite album. It has (almost) everything I love about my favorite band in one handy package. Somewhat fitting that it was their last album in the original line-up.

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