The year was 1996—almost 20 years ago, kids—and the alternative revolution was in its dead-ender stage. Kurt Cobain was gone, the Smashing Pumpkins ruled with a cross-breed of Rush and Journey (before it was cool), and the ska and swing revivals were just around the corner. That year, two of the biggest bands of the early 1990s came out with albums that basically killed their careers: R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Pearl Jam’s No Code.
Both albums met with mixed reviews from critics. Each earned an unenthusiastic 6 out of 10 rating from SPIN magazine, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi topped both best-of and worst-of lists for the year. Two bands who were at the height of fame—both of which came out of indie scenes (80s college rock and Seattle grunge) and managed to move the needle of popular music significantly to the left—came out with new albums, but neither would ever have the same success in the future.
The reason? “E-Bow the Letter” and “Who Are You.”
Pearl Jam had just come off of Ten, Vs, Vitalogy, and the modern-rock radio mega-hit “Better Man.” R.E.M. had had the two biggest albums of its career with Out of Time and Automatic for the People, which arrived just in time to go against the grain of the grunge rock insurgency with their acoustic, melodic, lapidary compositions like “Losing My Religion” and “Nightswimming.” 1994’s Monster looked a lot like an attempt to change course and cash in on the early 90s vogue for noise and dissonance, but it was still a great album—a delirious celebration of 70s glam and punk code-switching that spawned hits like “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” and “Crush with Eyeliner.”
R.E.M. and Pearl Jam could have attempted to prolong their dominance of the mainstream rock scene, bringing the indie/college/alternative rock sensibility to the masses, but they basically opted out. Pearl Jam had made its iconoclastic propensities clear long before, refusing to do videos after its huge first album and waging war on the monopoly of Ticketmaster in the most admirable hopeless fashion. R.E.M. had eschewed doing lip-syncing until “Losing My Religion,” which was probably the biggest ever pop single to prominently feature a mandolin, and they had the guts to drop a song like the mopey, acoustic killjoy “Drive” as their first single from Automatic, right in the midst of the alt-rock revolution: “Hey, kids, rock and roll. Nobody tells you where to go, babyyyyyy…”
Instead, the bands decided to send a jihadi suicide bomber into their own careers. Pearl Jam followed up Vitalogy with the New Age fireside sing-a-long song “Who You Are,” which reflected Eddie Vedder’s growing interest in Eastern music like qawwali and mystical bullshit. (“Who are you….. who you are.”) I remember my mom hearing the song in the car when it debuted on the radio, and saying, “What was that?”
When R.E.M. dropped the droning, sprechgesang dirge “E-Bow the Letter” on modern rock radio, the DJs on Charlotte’s 106.5 The End were completely at a loss. They even laughed. “What was that?”
“E-Bow the Letter” was an incredibly ballsy move. The song was arguably among R.E.M.’s best, a stream-of-consciousness ramble with buzzing guitar lines worthy of Robert Fripp and a ghostly guest spot from Patti Smith—an amazing artist, but maybe not the best choice to win the hearts of teeny-boppers at the end of Bill Clinton’s first term.
Ironically, both No Code and New Adventures in Hi-Fi featured solid rock numbers that could have been huge hits. Pearl Jam’s “Hail Hail” or “Mankind” could have succeeded on alt-rock radio, and R.E.M.’s “The Wake-Up Bomb” was the natural follow-up to the likes of “Bang and Blame”—a big, splashy, glam-rock anthem. But both bands traded their mainstream fame for a massively self-defeating move.
Pearl Jam always seemed to be okay with hating their own fame. They never wanted to sing “Jeremy” night after night, having blanched at their first brush with gigantic MTV-era fame. After No Code, they seemed to settle happily into the fate of being a cult band, even if albums like Yield and their self-titled 2006 album generated a few hits. (Notably, PJ made their first video for years for Yield’s “Do the Evolution.” But they also followed it up with “Nothing As It Seems” as the depressive first single from Binaural —arguably one of their best albums, but little heard due to the band’s determination to alienate audiences.
R.E.M., on the other hand, never quite seemed to accept the gravity of what they had done. New Adventures in Hi-Fi was a brilliant document of the band’s Monster tour, a weary travelogue recorded at soundchecks and live shows. The album’s gray face stared out at music buyers at Media Play just as the 1990s were shifting gears from the gloomy recessionary early decade to the jumpy, go-go, Squirrel Nuts Zipper and Spice Girls era. Singles such as “Bittersweet Me” and “Electrolite” made a minor impact on the radio, and their videos were as weird and loopy as ever, but R.E.M.’s days were clearly over. Drummer Bill Berry left the band after New Adventures, and the band soldiered on, violating a long-standing pledge to quit if the original four member line-up was ever compromised.
The unloved Up (1998) followed, and the band put out “Daysleeper” as a first single at the record label’s behest—hoping for a viable pop single. Subsequent albums led with tracks like “Imitation of Life” and “Supernatural Superserious” that clearly aspired to win back the catchy, anthemic joie de vivre of “Man on the Moon” or “The End of the World As We Know It.” All of it was to little avail.
“We were pushing buttons at radio and at MTV,” Michael Stipe recently told Grantland, “trying to present first singles off of records that they had to play, that they had to show. Eventually that sank one of our better records [New Adventures in Hi-Fi].” The band had just signed a deal with Warner Brothers that was reportedly worth $80 million, and they chose to torpedo the whole thing with a punk rock funeral march that featured Patti Smith. It’s actually refreshing to know that Stipe realizes the effect of this choice, and in a way regrets it. “We were in a position to push radio away from the mainstream and toward something that was more fringe and outside,” he said, “and we did that with every available chance. In the case of ‘E-Bow the Letter,’ we pushed it too far.”
So the brief, early-to-mid 1990s encounter with alternative music came to an end. R.E.M. may have always been a little more transgressive than Pearl Jam, which still had enough big cock-rock in its roots to satisfy the fans who continue to come out to hear “Jeremy” and “Evenflow” at shows. But both bands tried to meet the mainstream on their own terms and maintained their integrity better than most who taste the poisoned chalice of arena stardom.
They tried, they succeeded, and eventually they went too far—more than a changing market could accept. Perhaps in 1996 the pop music world and America were ready to move on from the alt-rock revolution, and R.E.M. and Pearl Jam’s self-inflicted wounds didn’t really matter in the end. But today, both “E-Bow the Letter” and “Who You Are” sound a lot like the British Labour Party’s 1983 manifesto—famously described as “the longest suicide note in history.”