Coming out of the closet—as a rock star, that is—was one of the best things Michael Stipe’s ever done. Since the 1989 Green tour, when the singer’s avoidance antics finally blossomed into cool big moves for the sports arenas R.E.M. had been playing for several years, this huge-cult hero has apparently been at ease in his big-time skin. And even as he plays with his shoplifted masks—some observers reckoned that Stipe had been watching Bono “The Fly” Hewson a little too closely before last year’s Monster outing—he’s done a much better job of projecting a welcome humanity than he did with the occasional forced eccentricity of his mid-’80s performances. (A low point: the shows in support of 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction, when Brother Michael just couldn’t stop the flow of pedantic psychobabble between songs.)

“[I’ll ]practice my T. Rex moves and make a scene,” Stipe teasingly declares on “The Wake-Up Bomb,” the most balls-out performance on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, R.E.M.’s latest instant best-seller. Whether he’s singing about himself, Liam Gallagher, or some other icon, it’s clear that for Athens, Ga.’s most ungainly favorite son, “this fame thing” is as much about costume as anything. He just wears the outfit better than ever. The detached Stipe who fluffed the (great) lyrics of Aerosmith’s “Toys in the Attic” in 1985 is gone. By the end of the decade, he was committing terrific performances of Foreigner frontman Lou Gramm’s 17-forever anthem, “Midnight Blue.” Ironic, maybe, but at least not unduly snotty.

In the ’90s, Stipe has continued down this dual path, both connecting with his audience and raising an eyebrow at it, and R.E.M. has reached its greatest success with its most consistent work: Out of Time, Automatic for the People, and Monster are all daring, deep sets that have also just happened to lead the band to its recent megabuck re-inking with Warner Bros.

Now there’s New Adventures, a snapshots-from-the-road record in the tradition of Time Fades Away and Running on Empty. Like them, it captures a where-am-I-and-why ambience, even with its concert and soundcheck material reworked in post-tour studio sessions. This is very much a transitional album, its feel somewhere between the chamberlike sweep of Out of Time and Automatic and the distortion-pedal party that raged on Monster. It’s the work of a band pretty near its peak, consolidating familiar sounds and styles while tinkering a little with the edges. Miraculous is too big a word for it, but it is a little bit, well, special that this crew, tuckered out from the lengthy and medically hobbled Monster jaunt, even cared about finishing this friggin’ thing.

We’ve certainly walked much of this ground before, from Peter Buck’s array of stringed wonders to Mike Mills’ trademark backing vocal yelp. The psychically battered lover of “Bittersweet Me” echoes Monster’s bitchier moments in his declaration that “I’d sooner chew my leg off than get trapped in this.” “Zither,” recorded in a concert-hall dressing room, is another instrumental that would have been better left to B-side status. And the (admittedly lovely) chorus of “Be Mine” could be an outtake from any of a half-dozen other R.E.M. discs. Its modestly soaring tone, however, is emblematic of New Adventures’ unpolished vibe and plain-spokenness.

Where ’80s R.E.M. touchstones like Document and the botched Pink Floyd tribute “Orange Crush” (remember those military sound effects?) ultimately tripped themselves up with overeager pronouncements, New Adventures’ politics are heavily weighted toward the personal. Despite a dis of inquisition-style talk shows (like Rush Limbaugh’s?) in “New Test Leper,” this isn’t exactly what we’ve come to expect from this band in an election year; Rolling Stone pundit William Greider’s name is dropped in “Departure” more for its rhyme with “hang-glider” than for an evocation of any policy idea. (One of the movie stars Stipe yearns to emulate in the closing “Electrolite” [sic] is part-time liberal activist Martin Sheen, but then he scans nicely alongside James Dean and Steve McQueen. Come to think of it, when’s the last time Stipe watched Bullitt, do ya think?)

“Electrolite” is the most beautiful number here, a strolling, piano-fed meditation that could be another remembrance of Stipe’s friend River Phoenix (the object of Monster’s sleeve dedication) or a love song to a Hollywood friend. (Stipe has been linked, as they say, to at least one young post-Phoenix actor. Consult alt.rem.gossip.)

In 1996, Stipe is fabulous enough to warrant rumors about his private life, and inspired enough to help make a somewhat scattered R.E.M. album sound like a big deal in a way he and his bandmates hadn’t yet learned at the time of Document. At the same time, he has managed to get his audience to look up to him while avoiding any sort of damning generational-voice label. (Which generation, anyway? Thirty-year-old R.E.M. fans, or those still in high school?) And if we can never quite agree on what it all means, well, that’s one definition of art. I suppose the band’s Young Republican fans and those with Greenpeace stickers on their cars could come together on that. Stipe: a wizard, a true star, a coalition builder.CP