E-Bow the Letter

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"E-Bow the Letter"
A black and white photo of a desert landscape pictured from inside a car
Single by R.E.M.
from the album New Adventures in Hi-Fi
  • "Tricycle"
  • "Departure"
  • "Wall of Death"
ReleasedAugust 19, 1996 (1996-08-19)
StudioBad Animals (Seattle)
LabelWarner Bros.
R.E.M. singles chronology
"E-Bow the Letter"
"Bittersweet Me"
Patti Smith singles chronology
"Summer Cannibals"
"E-Bow the Letter"

"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.[3] R.E.M. has also played the song live with artists including Thom Yorke singing Patti Smith's vocal part.[4] Phoenix was going through difficult times in 1993 due to his excessive drug use, something that inspired Stipe to compose the lyrics for the song;[3] the actor died on October 31 of that same year due to an overdose of cocaine and heroin.[5]

Buck recalled what it was like to record the track with Smith, saying, "Patti Smith singing on something that I helped write was just amazing. She changed my life in a real literal way in 1976 when I saw her play live. She changed my perception of what music was".[1] "E-Bow the Letter" is not the only song by the band in which she makes an appearance; she also provided the backing vocals for "Blue", the closing track of the group's last studio album Collapse into Now (2011).[6]

The band described the song as a "folk dirge".[7] 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."[8] The song showed how the band's "enigmatic lyrics are glowing clearer, like images emerging on photographic paper".[7] The song's stream of consciousness lyrics, writes Jessica Kennedy of MTV News, "reveal a vulnerable side, full of doubt".[9]

In 2019, Stipe stated that the song is the only one for which he wrote the lyrics before the music was formed, it having been part of a letter. The band played the song during a soundcheck on the Monster Tour, and Stipe ran backstage to retrieve the letter and put its words to the music.[10]

Release and impact[edit]

According to biographer David Buckley, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, with its sombre, muted tone, had "no obvious singles or radio hits,"[11] 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".[12] "E-Bow the Letter", one of the album's more introverted songs, was selected by R.E.M. as the lead single.[11] Given its downbeat, "almost dirge-like" nature,[13] spoken word verses,[12] "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".[11] 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."[14]

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.[15] 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.[12] "It was a proud display of artistic integrity," writes Stephen Troussé, "a label-infuriating demonstration that they commanded complete liberty."[16] 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."[17]

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."[13] Stipe reflected 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."[17]

Critical reception[edit]

Larry Flick from Billboard described the song as "one of the band's typically introspective rock ballads." He added:

Michael Stipe trounces through thickly textured patches of swelling organs, acoustic strumming, and razor-sharp, sparingly placed electric guitars with the sad, furrowed brow and eternally ponderous voice that has become his signature. Patti Smith wraps the song with deceptively soothing incantations that effectively sneak up from behind the music to a full-frontal caterwaul by the track's close. Artful, affecting, and undeniably accessible...three solid traits of any R.E.M. recording.[18]

"E-Bow the Letter" was ranked number 21 on NME magazine's list of the "Singles of the Year".[19] Pitchfork Media founder and owner Ryan Schreiber described it on the website as "possibly one of the greatest songs ever written."[20] 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.[14]

Thomas Ward of AllMusic described it as one of R.E.M.'s best compositions from the 1990s and as the centerpiece of one of their "most forgotten and underrated" albums. The critic stated:

"E-Bow the Letter" is one of R.E.M's finest songs of the 1990s, and the centrepiece of one of their most neglected and undervalued albums, New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Containing a terrific, guitar driven arrangement, and an unusual, but catchy melody, the song is essentially a showcase for Michael Stipe's quick-fire, somewhat oblique lyric, although containing some wonderful moments (such as 'Dreaming of Maria Callas/Whoever she is'). The song's success is driven from its unusualness – the lyric and chord structure are certainly unconventional, and the plain weirdness of Stipe's lyric. As such, it does not warrant literal explanation, but is nevertheless an enthralling listening experience."[21]

The A.V. Club ranked it at number 31 on their list of R.E.M.'s Top 40 Songs, stating: "The band, joined here by Stipe's avowed heroine, Patti Smith, plays with divine fire on this magnificent track from the 1996 album. New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Stipe genuflects before his idol, giving her the space to steal the show at the end of the song and concluded that this is an astonishingly powerful and appropriate collaboration.[22]

Chart performance[edit]

On the US Billboard Hot 100, "E-Bow the Letter" debuted at number 54 in the issue of September 7, 1996, reaching its peak of number 49 the following week and spending nine weeks on the chart altogether.[23][24] The song reached the top five on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, peaking at number two on September 14, 1996, and entered the top 10 on the Adult Alternative Songs ranking, reaching number seven on September 7 and spending seven weeks on the chart.[25][26] The song also appeared on the Billboard Mainstream Rock and Maxi-Singles Sales charts, reaching numbers 15 and 39, respectively, on September 14.[27][28] Along with "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", it is the only R.E.M. song to appear on the latter listing.[28] In Canada, the track reached the top 10, peaking at number six on the RPM 100 Hit Tracks chart and at number one on the RPM Alternative 30.[29][30] The magazine later ranked the song as Canada's 53rd-best-performing single of 1996 as well as the 30th-best-performing rock song.[31][32]

In the United Kingdom, "E-Bow the Letter" became the band's highest-charting single until "The Great Beyond" in 2000, debuting and peaking at number four on the UK Singles Chart based on its "typically wry sense of humour".[11][16][33] Giving R.E.M. their 18th top-40 hit on the chart, the song spent six weeks in the UK top 100.[33] The song also reached the top 10 in Ireland, where it reached number eight.[34] In Iceland, "E-Bow" the letter rose to number two on the Íslenski listinn chart after seven weeks, eventually ending 1996 as the country's 41st-most-successful single.[35][36] The track became R.E.M.'s fifth top-10 hit in Norway, debuting and peaking at number six, where it remained for two weeks.[37] In Finland, the song peaked within the top 20, reaching number 11 on the Finnish Singles Chart. Elsewhere in Europe, "E-Bow the Letter" appeared on the charts of Austria, Flanders, Germany, and the Netherlands, achieving a peak of number 28 on the Eurochart Hot 100.[38][39][40] In Australia, the song reached number 23 on the ARIA Singles Chart and spent four weeks in the top 50, while in New Zealand, it debuted at its peak of number 32 and left the RIANZ Singles Chart after three weeks.[41][42]

Track listings[edit]

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

UK cassette single[46]
  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[49]
  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[50]
  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.[43][51]



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
United States August 20, 1996
  • 7-inch vinyl
  • CD
  • cassette
August 27, 1996 Maxi-CD [1]
September 24, 1996 Contemporary hit radio [58]
Japan October 25, 1996 CD [59]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e 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. ^ a b Moreno, Alberto (September 5, 2021). "Carta de amor a un disco de R.E.M." Vanity Fair España (in Spanish). Retrieved February 28, 2023.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Edwards, Gavin (October 17, 2013). "River Phoenix's Tragic Overdose: Dan Aykroyd Warned Him About Heroin Dependency". Vanity Fair. Retrieved April 19, 2022.
  6. ^ Collapse into Now (Inner notes). R.E.M. Warner Records. 2011. 9362-49827-1.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  7. ^ a b Mason, Bobbie Ann (September 8, 1996). "Breaking New Ground, But the Roots Hold Fast". The New York Times. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  8. ^ Gilmer, Marcus (July 21, 2011). "R.E.M." The A.V. Club. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  9. ^ Kennedy, Jessica (April 11, 1998). "New Adventures". MTV. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  10. ^ R.E.M - Monster | Track By Track | X-Posure | Radio X, retrieved June 14, 2023
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ a b Courtney, Kevin (September 21, 1996). "Shinier happier people". Irish Times. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  14. ^ a b Masterton, James (August 25, 1996). "Week Ending August 31st 1996". Chart Watch UK. Retrieved January 26, 2022.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ a b Troussé, Stephen "New Adventures in Hi-Fi", Uncut Ultimate Music Guide: R.E.M., TI Media (London, 2019), p. 88.
  17. ^ a b Stubbs, David (November 2003). ""We Didn't Really Know What We Had Done"". Uncut. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  18. ^ Flick, Larry (August 31, 1996). "Reviews & Previews: Singles" (PDF). Billboard. p. 116. Retrieved December 1, 2022.
  19. ^ "End of Year Lists". Acclaimed Music. Retrieved March 4, 2008.
  20. ^ R.E.M.: New Adventures in Hi-Fi: Pitchfork Review
  21. ^ "E-Bow the Letter". AllMusic. Retrieved March 22, 2023.
  22. ^ "Essential R.E.M.: Their 40 greatest songs, ranked". The A.V. Club. April 12, 2023. Retrieved May 28, 2023.
  23. ^ "Billboard Hot 100". Billboard. September 7, 1996. Retrieved August 5, 2022.
  24. ^ a b "R.E.M. Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  25. ^ a b "R.E.M. Chart History (Alternative Airplay)". Billboard. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  26. ^ a b "R.E.M. Chart History (Adult Alternative Songs)". Billboard. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  27. ^ a b "R.E.M. Chart History (Mainstream Rock)". Billboard. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  28. ^ a b c "R.E.M. Chart History (Dance Singles Sales)". Billboard. Retrieved July 3, 2021.
  29. ^ a b "Top RPM Singles: Issue 9921." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  30. ^ a b "Top RPM Rock/Alternative Tracks: Issue 9925." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  31. ^ a b "RPM Year End Top 100 Hit Tracks". RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved July 17, 2018.
  32. ^ a b "RPM Year End Alternative Top 50". RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved July 17, 2018.
  33. ^ a b c "REM: Artist Chart History". Official Charts Company. Retrieved August 5, 2022.
  34. ^ a b "The Irish Charts – Search Results – E-Bow the Letter". Irish Singles Chart. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  35. ^ a b "Íslenski Listinn Topp 40 (17.10. – 23.10. '96)". Dagblaðið Vísir (in Icelandic). October 18, 1996. p. 16. Retrieved October 2, 2019.
  36. ^ a b "Árslistinn 1996". Dagblaðið Vísir (in Icelandic). January 2, 1997. p. 25. Retrieved May 30, 2020.
  37. ^ a b "R.E.M. – E-Bow the Letter". VG-lista. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  38. ^ a b "R.E.M. – E-Bow the Letter" (in German). Ö3 Austria Top 40. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  39. ^ a b "R.E.M. – E-Bow the Letter" (in Dutch). Dutch Top 40. Retrieved July 26, 2021.
  40. ^ a b "Eurochart Hot 100 Singles" (PDF). Music & Media. Vol. 13, no. 36. September 7, 1996. p. 9. Retrieved May 30, 2020.
  41. ^ a b "R.E.M. – E-Bow the Letter". ARIA Top 50 Singles. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  42. ^ a b "R.E.M. – E-Bow the Letter". Top 40 Singles. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  43. ^ 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)
  44. ^ 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)
  45. ^ 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)
  46. ^ 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)
  47. ^ 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)
  48. ^ 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)
  49. ^ 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)
  50. ^ 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)
  51. ^ 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)
  52. ^ "R.E.M. – E-Bow the Letter" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  53. ^ "R.E.M.: E-Bow the Letter" (in Finnish). Musiikkituottajat. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  54. ^ "R.E.M. – E-Bow the Letter" (in German). GfK Entertainment charts. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  55. ^ "R.E.M. – E-Bow the Letter" (in Dutch). MegaCharts. Retrieved July 25, 2021.
  56. ^ "Official Scottish Singles Sales Chart Top 100". Official Charts Company. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  57. ^ "New Releases: Singles" (PDF). Music Week. August 17, 1996. p. 35. Retrieved July 3, 2021.
  58. ^ "Selected New Releases" (PDF). Radio & Records. No. 1164. September 20, 1996. p. 43. Retrieved August 21, 2021.
  59. ^ "E-ボウ・ザ・レター | R.E.M." [E-Bow the Letter | R.E.M.] (in Japanese). Oricon. Retrieved August 29, 2023.

External links[edit]