R.E.M. – Automatic For The People

Automatic For The People (1992)

A-

1. Drive 2. Try Not To Breathe 3. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite 4. Everybody Hurts 5. New Orleans Instrumental No. 1 6. Sweetness Follows 7. Monty Got A Raw Deal 8. Ignoreland 9. Star Me Kitten 10. Man On The Moon 11. Nightswimming 12. Find The River

 

The death album. Oh wait, excuse me, the mortality album. Whatever. That’s just one way of saying that although it shares Out Of Time’s “acoustic-based, adult-friendly pop” approach, Automatic For The People is just about its tonal opposite. And yet it performed even better commercially, becoming the biggest seller of 1992 – one of those ubiquitous albums that come by every now and again that spawn like 15 hit singles (OK, six, in this case) and everybody owns. As a result, two decades later, it remains by far the general public’s favorite REM album – mostly because the majority of the general public has never heard Reckoning, but Automatic isn’t totally undeserving of that mantle. It’s overtly commercial and listenable without being novelty, crass, or shitty, for one, which is a pretty rare feat. And the songwriting, overall, is at a level that it hadn’t been for these guys in a few years, and that they would never really approach again.

But man, do the Remmers sound bummed and burned out. And no wonder – they had been the hardest working band in the business throughout the 80’s, releasing an album every year and touring pretty much constantly for half the decade. And after graduating to arenas for the endless Green tour, they finally decided to take a break and declined to tour for Out Of Time or this one (their two biggest selling albums and they didn’t even tour behind them? I guess sometimes you just have to take those “time-tested” marketing strategies and shove them up your ass). It’s almost too good of a Behind The Music setup – the pioneering rockers are nearly destroyed by the burdens of the road but dramatically reconvene in the studio to make their soul-baring classic. Not to mention the urban myth surrounding the album that surfaced when it came out – that Stipe was writing all these downbeat songs about mortality because he was secretly dying of AIDS. Well, he’s alive, just like Paul, and Elvis (!), but I guess his subject matter and apparent sincerity still sounded pretty profound to people back in the early 90’s.

And, for the most part, they still do. Stipe somehow manages to reign in the melodrama (aside from a couple of glaring examples, which you’ll recognize), so when he sings about an old man trying to die in his sleep on “Try Not To Breathe,” it just sounds like he’s trying to paint a character sketch of someone who happens to have a heartbreaking outlook on (the end of) life, rather than cynically trying to make you cry because an old man is dying and that’s sad.

Basically, Stipe and band simply sound like they mean what they’re doing again after all that goofing around on the last couple of records. Thus, they are able to write great singles like “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” which is ostensibly a chipper pop song but (with similar subject matter to “Try Not To Breathe”) sounds like they only added all those jaunty major chords because they’re just trying to cheer themselves up! The album’s sound certainly does match Stipe’s mood… lots of minor key acoustic guitars and mandolins, but with a far greater distorted electric guitar presence than Out Of Time. Often Buck is using them to add effectively moody drones (see the achingly beautiful “Sweetness Follows”), but at certain times on the album they can even sound angry (see the Crazy Horse-aping, anti-Bush Sr. “Ignoreland,” the only real “guitar rocker” on the record, which some see as out of place here, but I see as a great “guitar rocker” and great “guitar rockers” are never out of place anywhere), which duly adds an extra edge to Stipe’s forlorn pathos. He even dishes out a couple of acoustified old school REM jangle riffs to keep me happy (“Drive,” “Monty Got A Raw Deal”).

Also, notably, all the string arrangements are done by John Paul Jones. What was he doing between the end of Led Zeppelin and this? And what has he been doing since? I’m pretty sure the timeline goes Led Zeppelin–>nothing–>not getting invited to the Page & Plant thing–>Automatic For The People string arrangements–>nothing–>Led Zeppelin reunion concert–>becoming senile and thus deciding to be in a band with Dave Grohl. Yeah, that looks about right.

I’m just thrilled with how an album that has Michael Stipe singing all the songs can be so somber and affecting without becoming too overbearing or saccharine. Besides, not all the songs are about death! “Drive” is about getting older and not being cool anymore; “Monty Got A Raw Deal” is about some actor from the 50’s that I’ve never heard of; “Man On The Moon” is about Andy Kaufman… good job, Michael. Except for when you do a bad job. “Everybody Hurts” threatens to torpedo all the good will I build up during the first three songs and I’m forced to spend the rest of the album building it back up. It falls prey to every problem I’ve commended the rest of the album for avoiding… my mom’s idiot dog could have written this song it’s so insultingly simple. The first song I ever legitimately finished writing on the guitar when I was 15 sounded exactly like it and I don’t think I’d ever heard “Everybody Hurts” at that point. I’m told that it features an all-time great Stipe vocal, but I’m sure Susan Boyle would sing it well if she did it too… and it would suit her just fine. “Nightswimming” approaches its adult contemporary blechness (leave it to Stipe to get all melodramatic about skinny dipping), but at least it has that pretty Mills piano line. The only other song here that grinds my gears much is the James Taylor impersonation “Find The River,” but that’s only because of Stipe’s baffling pronunciation of the word “speedometer.” What the fuck is a “speedmetter?” There’s an “o” in there, asshole.

To me, Automatic For The People (which takes its name from the slogan of Weaver D’s restaurant in Athens, where I didn’t get to go when I was there because I was sick. My girlfriend went without me and brought be back some leftover fried chicken, though. Mmmmm) sounds like the IRS REM grown up. If you think they sold out with Green and Out Of Time, try ignoring “Everybody Hurts” and pretend you haven’t heard half these songs on the radio 5 million times – doesn’t it sound like the band coming back down to earth a little bit? I think it does… if only they would’ve stayed there.



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