E-Bow The Letter
October 3, 2007
There is a tendency to directly attribute New Adventures In Hi-Fi‘s relatively lackluster sales to R.E.M.’s decision to release “E-Bow The Letter” as the album’s lead single, but you know what? I think that’s mostly bullshit.
1) It wouldn’t have been the first R.E.M. album to be heralded by a song that was either unconventional or relatively uncommercial in comparison to the planned second single.
2) It’s really key to understand that despite Monster‘s enormous sales, that record was already piling up in used cd shops before Hi-Fi was even announced. The backlash was well underway, and it’s actually sort of miraculous that it happened so late in the band’s career.
3) Call me a conspiracy theorist all you want, but I don’t believe that it’s entirely a coincidence that several high profile releases by acts with vocal left-leaning political sensibilities all simultaneously flopped just after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed and allowed right wing corporations such as Clear Channel to monopolize the airwaves.
I don’t think that any of the songs on New Adventures In Hi-Fi had a shot at major success in the fall of 1996, especially not when the band was unwilling to tour or participate in very much of the whoring and glad-handing necessary to prop up a record at that moment in time, or really, any time since then.
“E-Bow The Letter” may not be anyone’s idea of a mainstream pop hit, but I think it actually was the most logical formal introduction to the album. For one thing, it’s one of the finest songs on Hi-Fi, and easily one of the most distinct and original compositions of the band’s career. Though it is most certainly a melancholy dirge, it is actually rather catchy, with two strong hooks on the chorus and verses that flow with a subtle, rambling melody that is far more careful and composed than it initially seems. Peter Buck’s contributions to the piece are key, and stand as one of the all-time best examples of his skill for composing elegant, meticulous tracks comprised of rather simple, understated parts. In other hands, “E-Bow” may have come across flat and gloomy, but Buck’s arrangement carries us through the nuances of its emotions rather than settle into an ill-defined moodiness.
True to its title, “E-Bow The Letter” reads like a bit of intimate correspondence taken out of its context, and so we’re left to work out the meaning of a fragment of a conversation that seems as though it is an index to the themes of New Adventures In Hi-Fi as a whole. Most obviously, there’s romantic turbulence, which is played out in a duet with Patti Smith, whose vocal performance on the track is simultaneously seductive and terrifying. There are references to aging, glam androgyny, drugs, religion, and a pronounced ambivalence about living with fame. There are moments of horror and beauty, and a sense of movement through time and space. It’s a heady, potent brew of ideas and emotions, but its tangents do nothing to pull us away from the central drama of the lyrics. If anything, the context only makes the relationship seem more real, and increases the intensity and urgency of the song’s sexual anxiety.