E-Bow the Letter

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"E-Bow the Letter"
R.E.M. - E-Bow the Letter.jpg
Single by R.E.M.
from the album New Adventures in Hi-Fi
B-side
  • "Tricycle"
  • "Departure"
  • "Wall of Death"
ReleasedAugust 19, 1996 (1996-08-19)
StudioBad Animals (Seattle)
Genre
Length5:22
LabelWarner Bros.
Songwriter(s)
Producer(s)
R.E.M. singles chronology
"Tongue"
(1995)
"E-Bow the Letter"
(1996)
"Bittersweet Me"
(1996)
Patti Smith singles chronology
"Summer Cannibals"
(1996)
"E-Bow the Letter"
(1996)
"1959"
(1997)

"E-Bow the Letter" is the first single from American rock band R.E.M.'s 10th studio album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996). It was released on August 19, 1996, several weeks before the album's release. During the same month, R.E.M. signed a then record-breaking five-album contract with Warner Bros. Records. The song features American singer-songwriter and "Godmother of Punk" Patti Smith performing backing vocals. Smith was cited as a major influence by band members Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, and she also provided backing vocals for "Blue", the closing track on the band's final studio album, Collapse into Now, in 2011.

Although the song peaked at number four on the UK Singles Chart, the highest any R.E.M. song charted in the United Kingdom until "The Great Beyond" in 2000, the song fared less well in the United States, reaching only number 49 on the Billboard Hot 100. It became R.E.M.'s lowest-charting lead single since "Fall on Me" released from Lifes Rich Pageant in 1986, when the band was on a smaller record label, I.R.S. Records. Jem Cohen directed the song's music video, which features R.E.M. in Los Angeles and Smith in Prague.[1]

Background and composition[edit]

A photograph of Patti Smith looking to the side of the camera while performing onstage
Patti Smith—an influence on Peter Buck and Michael Stipe—provided backing vocals to the song.

The song is about Stipe's friend, the actor and musician River Phoenix. The title refers to the EBow,[2] an electromagnetic field-generating device that induces sustained vibration in an electric guitar string (creating a violin-like effect), and to a "letter never sent" by Michael Stipe.[citation needed] R.E.M. has also played the song live with artists including Thom Yorke singing Patti Smith's vocal part.[3]

The band described the song as a "folk dirge".[4] Marcus Gilmer of The A.V. Club said that the "dirge-like" song "dabbles in Middle Eastern sounds—thanks to the use of the titular instrument— and features Patti Smith's haunting backing vocals."[5] The song showed how the band's "enigmatic lyrics are glowing clearer, like images emerging on photographic paper".[4] The song's stream of consciousness lyrics, writes Jessica Kennedy of MTV News, "reveal a vulnerable side, full of doubt".[6]

Release[edit]

According to biographer David Buckley, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, with its sombre, muted tone, had "no obvious singles or radio hits,"[7] although Consequence of Sound noted that R.E.M. could have selected a pop-oriented song like "Bittersweet Me" to trail the album, yet "stuck to their guns".[8] "E-Bow the Letter", one of the album's more introverted songs, was selected by R.E.M. as the lead single.[7] Given its downbeat, "almost dirge-like" nature,[9] spoken word verses,[8] "Dylanesque vocal delivery" and funereal pace, it was considered an unusual and brave choice as it, says Buckley, "it was largely inappropriate for hit radio".[7] According to British chart watcher James Masterton in his column for Dotmusic, the single followed R.E.M.'s typical "marketing habit of issuing one of the most uncommercial tracks from the album as the lead single. Just like 'Drive' back in 1992 the track at first sounds like a monotonous, tuneless mess which has caused radio programmers a few headaches, caught between the demand for people to hear the new single from one of the biggest groups in the world and the fact that it sounds so totally weird."[10]

According to Patrick M. Reilly of The Wall Street Journal, executives at Warner Bros. said that "the band's choice of a droning, dirge-like first single" negatively impacted the album's sales.[11] A retrospective article Consequence of Sound said that the song not only thwarted the album's commercial success, but also for R.E.M. going forward.[8] The single reached number 49 on the US Billboard Hot 100, a considerable turnaround for the group following five years of commercial success. However, "with a typically wry sense of humour", it became R.E.M.'s highest-charting UK single to date,[7] peaking at number four on the UK Singles Chart.[12][13] "It was a proud display of artistic integrity," writes Stephen Troussé, "a label-infuriating demonstration that they commanded complete liberty."[13] David Stubbs of Uncut said the "heavy-duty avant-folk-rock" song was "another of REM’s unapologetic anti-single singles," with another to follow in 1997's "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us". "Whatever is vexing them is inscrutable to the casual listener; indeed, obscurely compelling as the song is, it seems from one angle like a deliberate attempt to shed extraneous fans."[14]

Mike Mills said the band's choice of lead single was "in reaction to the fact that we've never taken the easy way out. It's important for us to challenge ourselves and the audience. Audiences can respond well to things like that, like putting out 'Drive' from Automatic for the People. That was a very important decision for us, and the record company weren't real thrilled about it, but they trust us and they know we have reasons for what we do, and it usually works out. It didn't do Automatic much harm."[9] Stipe refelected that the group held the ability "to release the most unlikely songs just to push radio as far as we could push them, get more good music on the radio. And there was… for a while. 'E-Bow the Letter' sounded the death knell for us being able to do that! But I think it represents some of my best writing."[14]

Reception[edit]

"E-Bow the Letter" was ranked number 21 on NME magazine's list of the "Singles of the Year".[15] In 2003, the song was placed on R.E.M.'s compilation In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003. Pitchfork Media founder and owner Ryan Schreiber described it on the website as "possibly one of the greatest songs ever written."[16] British columnist James Masterton called the song "so totally weird" and compared it to Mott the Hoople's 1972 single "All the Young Dudes", which features similar instrumentation.[17]

Track listings[edit]

All songs were written by Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe, except where noted.

UK cassette single[21]
  1. "E-Bow the Letter" (Seattle studio) – 5:22 (5:24 on UK version)
  2. "Tricycle" (St. Louis soundcheck) – 1:58 (1:59 on UK version)
UK and European CD single[24]
  1. "E-Bow the Letter" (Seattle studio) – 5:22 (5:24 on UK version)
  2. "Tricycle" (St. Louis soundcheck) – 1:58 (1:59 on UK version)
  3. "Departure" (Rome soundcheck) – 3:35
  4. "Wall of Death" (Athens studio) (Richard Thompson) – 3:07
  • Australian CD single[25]
  1. "E-Bow the Letter" – 5:24
  2. "Tricycle" – 1:59
  3. "Departure" (live) – 3:35
  4. "Wall of Death" (Thompson) – 3:07

Credits and personnel[edit]

Credits are adapted from the US CD single liner notes and the New Adventures in Hi-Fi booklet.[18][26]

Studio

Charts[edit]

Release history[edit]

Region Date Format(s) Label Ref.
United States August 14, 1996 All rock radio formats Warner Bros. [1]
United Kingdom August 19, 1996
  • CD
  • cassette
[51]
United States August 20, 1996
  • 7-inch vinyl
  • CD
  • cassette
[1]
August 27, 1996 Maxi-CD [1]
September 24, 1996 Contemporary hit radio [52]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Rosen, Craig (August 10, 1996). "Strong Marketing to Back R.E.M.'s Warner Bros. Set" (PDF). Billboard. Vol. 108, no. 32. p. 84. Retrieved August 21, 2021.
  2. ^ Rosen, Craig (August 10, 1996). "R.E.M. Set's Rundown". Billboard. Vol. 108, no. 32. p. 84.
  3. ^ Monroe, Jazz (September 27, 2018). "Listen to R.E.M. and Thom Yorke's Version of "E-Bow the Letter" | Pitchfork". Pitchfork. Retrieved September 27, 2018.
  4. ^ a b Mason, Bobbie Ann (September 8, 1996). "Breaking New Ground, But the Roots Hold Fast". The New York Times. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  5. ^ Gilmer, Marcus (July 21, 2011). "R.E.M." The A.V. Club. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  6. ^ Kennedy, Jessica (April 11, 1998). "New Adventures". MTV. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  7. ^ a b c d Buckley, David (2011). "'I'm Outta Here', 1996-98". R.E.M. Fiction: An Alternative Biography. London: Virgin Books. ISBN 978-0753539088.
  8. ^ a b c Melis, Matt; Gerber, Justin; Weiss, Dan (November 6, 2017). "Ranking: Every R.E.M. Album from Worst to Best". Consequence of Sound. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  9. ^ a b Courtney, Kevin (September 21, 1996). "Shinier happier people". Irish Times. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  10. ^ Masterton, James (August 31, 1996). "Week Ending August 31st 1996". Chart Watch UK. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  11. ^ Reilly, Patrick M. (October 14, 1996). "R.E.M.'s New Album Fails To Heat Up Record Charts". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  12. ^ Masterton, James (August 31, 1996). "Week Ending August 31st 1996". Chart Watch UK. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  13. ^ a b Troussé, Stephen "New Adventures in Hi-Fi", Uncut Ultimate Music Guide: R.E.M., TI Media (London, 2019), p. 88.
  14. ^ a b Stubbs, David (November 2003). ""We Didn't Really Know What We Had Done"". Uncut. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  15. ^ "End of Year Lists". Acclaimed Music. Retrieved March 4, 2008.
  16. ^ R.E.M.: New Adventures in Hi-Fi: Pitchfork Review
  17. ^ Masterton, James (August 25, 1996). "Week Ending August 31st 1996". Chart Watch UK. Retrieved January 26, 2022.
  18. ^ a b E-Bow the Letter (US CD single liner notes). R.E.M. Warner Bros. Records. 1996. 9 17529-2.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  19. ^ E-Bow the Letter (US cassette single sleeve). R.E.M. Warner Bros. Records. 1996. 9 17529-4.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  20. ^ E-Bow the Letter (US 7-inch single vinyl disc). R.E.M. Warner Bros. Records. 1996. 7-17529.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  21. ^ E-Bow the Letter (UK cassette single sleeve). R.E.M. Warner Bros. Records. 1996. W0369C.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  22. ^ E-Bow the Letter (US 12-inch single vinyl disc). R.E.M. Warner Bros. Records. 1996. 9 43763-0.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  23. ^ E-Bow the Letter (US maxi-CD single liner notes). R.E.M. Warner Bros. Records. 1996. 9 43763-2.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  24. ^ E-Bow the Letter (UK & European CD single liner notes). R.E.M. Warner Bros. Records. 1996. W0369CD.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  25. ^ E-Bow the Letter (Australian CD single liner notes). R.E.M. Warner Bros. Records. 1996. 9362437632.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  26. ^ New Adventures in Hi-Fi (US CD album booklet). R.E.M. Warner Bros. Records. 1996. 9 46320-2.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
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  36. ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – E-Bow the Letter". Irish Singles Chart. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
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External links[edit]