R.E.M. bent the laws of rock radio with 'E-Bow the Letter'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Most days, there’s some sort of quick search for music to power myself through another day at the office. It doesn’t typically last long, and it switches between either an old favorite or something new that deserves an investment of time. Despite wanting to hear new things, a lot of it is recycling the same stuff. Ruts happen.
This morning, and motivated by a chance encounter with them via my library the night before, I spun the dial back to R.E.M. and their 1996 album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi. It was a landmark record in a lot of ways. It was their last with original drummer Bill Berry, it was their last to make a real mark on the public consciousness past their hardcore fans and it was recorded on the fly, during soundchecks on their last tour as a four-piece. It was a process that was designed to encourage experimentation and loosen up the band, and it led to some of the weirder songs — notable, for a band that made its name in reinventing themselves on every album.
At this point in 1996, a good 90 percent of my music exposure came via 95.5 FM out of Providence, an alternative station in the truest form of that term. They played “retro lunches” in the afternoon that leaned heavily on the Smiths and Violent Femmes and other gems from the new wave, and they played plenty of bands who were just starting to break through or were still bubbling below the surface of the mainstream, all very educational to a 14-year-old fanatic.
But they were also faithful to those bands that had advanced to that bigger stage and clouded the very meaning of that “alternative” label, and that meant plenty of airtime to bands like U.2., Soundgarden, the Offspring, Pearl Jam and, in this case, R.E.M. And, in these cases, the new singles and records by these bands were treated as milestone events that deserved documentation and, in most cases, celebration. There were radio contests and “first listens” and maybe even hour-long programming blocks on the weekend devoted to that band’s catalog.
R.E.M.’s “E-Bow the Letter” got this kind of treatment on the station. There was already a cursory knowledge of their stuff in my brain. Even without quite enveloped in all things music, I knew their hits, for sure — “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts,” “Bang and Blame” and whatever else might’ve popped up on MTV’s “120 Minutes,” at the least.
This “first listen” mentality sometimes resulted in duds that were undeservedly heaped with praise — I remember being particularly disappointed and annoyed with new stuff from the Offspring and Bush around this time, the start of a lifelong trend — but some songs rang real and raw. Soundgarden debuted “Pretty Noose” in 1996, and it was as tight and aggressive as anything in their career. Pearl Jam’s “Who You Are” sounded nothing like anything else in their catalog, but was still captivating enough to spur excitement for the upcoming No Code. But “E-Bow the Letter,” even in this context, sounded like it was from another planet.
I already knew a bit of the physics of what made a single, and certainly a lead-off single, and this destroyed whatever notions I held. Michael Stipe recited the head-deep lyrics more than he sang them and spun a tale that moved so quickly as to be impossible to understand on the first few listens. This strange voice in the back (this spurred me to investigate Patti Smith) carried main vocal melody in the chorus. Even the way it started was shocking. Rather than some pretty chord or arpeggio to announce the song, listeners were hit with this droning note from an amplified violin groaning over an acoustic guitar that seemed almost indifferent to the chaos around it.
And on those early listens, all these parts didn’t seem to fit together at all. Stipe has always been a verbose lyricist, but even this song seemed to see him stretch himself beyond his comfort zone. His words read, fittingly, like a letter, though it’s one side of a conversation that’s more interested in poetry than in declaration. Above all, it’s haunting. There are verses that are at once confusing and enthralling. And they begin immediately:
I wore it like a badge of teenage film stars
Hash bars, cherry mash and tinfoil tiaras
Dreaming of Maria Callas, whoever she is
This fame thing, I don't get it.
In between, Smith chimes in on the chorus, chanting “I’ll take you over” while our narrator, played by Stipe, continues to chant, “aluminum, tastes like fear, adrenaline, it pulls us near.” It was so confusing. It didn’t fit my preconceived notions of what rock and roll was supposed to be.
But there it was. This song was played enough that it caught my attention, and it was played enough that I was able to make a quick copy on a blank cassette at one point, and brought it with me to school to investigate further, at lunch and on the bus. All this disparate pieces of music came together to form a song that worked on a higher level than anything else on the radio at the time, and still works better than most of the singles that will be pre-approved for a mass audience now.
It’s truly a unique piece of work. To have come from a band who had changed directions as many times as they’d had, and to come that late in their career is nothing short of incredible. The circumstances to overcome were as incredible as the song it created. Ruts be damned, this was more than background noise. This was art.
Nov. 5, 2013
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org