New Test Leper
April 18, 2007
“New Test Leper” is the first half of what appears to be an intentional diptych of tracks on New Adventures In Hi-Fi that deal with the conflict of organized religion and secular humanism. Michael Stipe’s character in the song is an agnostic who has somehow found himself as a guest on a televised talk show. He’s pitted against argumentative believers, but can’t bring himself to get too combative — he ends up turning Biblical quotations back on his opponents, and getting cut off for commercial breaks.
The song isn’t really about this specific debate, but rather how commercialized forums tend to reduce serious discourse to reductive “us vs. them” binary conflicts fought out with quick, harsh sound bites between advertisements for car dealerships and laundry detergent. The singer is patient and well-intentioned, but all that comes across to the audience is his alienation and condescension. Stipe sounds deflated and resigned from the start, and even when he acknowledges that the program is unflattering, he still seems mildly surprised when he realizes how poorly he has expressed his point of view in a venue that rewards bluntness and antagonistic rhetoric.