Brent Johnson’s Lost Songs: ‘New Test Leper’ by R.E.M.

brent johnson welcomes 2012 with a lost cut from the most important band to call it quits in 2011 …

When R.E.M. broke up last year, the music world lost something rare: a cult band that was also a household name.

The Athens, Ga., alt-rockers often sounded little like a mainstream act — a group with murky vocals, mysterious background voices, tangled-wire guitars, indecipherable lyrics and hooks played by mandolins. They were a band made for college radio, even when Top 40 stations started playing them.

But unlike The Stooges, Roxy Music, X, The Buzzcocks or The Melvins, everyone knows an R.E.M. song — ‘The One I Love,’ ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine), ‘Stand,’ ‘Losing My Religion,’ ‘Man On The Moon,’ ‘Everybody Hurts.’

Even so, they left us with a catalogue of songs even audiophiles may overlook. It’s the true mark of an important band: Pop on any of R.E.M.’s albums, and you’ll find gems hidden in the tracklistings: ‘We Walk,’ ‘Harborcoat,’ Country Feedback,’ ‘Electrolite,’ ‘At My Most Beautiful.’

The most affecting and most haunting, though, may be ‘New Test Leper.’ It’s a subtle cut off of 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the last album with the original members, before drummer Bill Berry left. Peter Buck’s guitar work is unsuspectingly catchy. Michael Stipe’s vocals are gorgeously hushed. And Stipe apparently wrote the immediate, touching lyrics — an ode to outcasts — after seeing a lost soul on a Geraldo-like talk show.

I can’t say that I love Jesus
That would be a hollow claim
He did make some observations
And I’m quoting them today
‘Judge not lest ye be judged’
What a beautiful refrain
The studio audience disagrees
Have his lambs all gone astray?
Call me a leper …

Stipe has called this — not ‘Losing My Religion,’ not ‘Everybody Hurts’ — his crowning achievement as a songwriter. That says a lot for a band with so many tunes to choose from.