Friday, October 7, 2011

R.E.M. 9: Automatic For The People

It arrived on one of those crisp October days, without a hint of Indian summer in the air. It was still exciting to hear a new album by a band you liked, especially one as unpredictable as R.E.M. Not only we were pretty happy it came relatively quickly after their last one—one of the plusses of not touring—but Automatic For The People delivered a listening experience that nicely contrasted the huge pop sound that made Out Of Time so ubiquitous.
“Drive” had already made it to the radio, with its menacing acoustic-with-strings echo of the previous album. And we still couldn’t understand a damn word he was saying. “Try Not To Breathe” sets the mortality theme, lifted a hair by the goofiness in “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”. “Everybody Hurts” wore out its welcome pretty quick, though the video and its nod to the recent film Falling Down (itself a nod to the more obscure film The Swimmer) is still a great visual artifact. “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” is suitably daring yet slight, and an odd choice for the middle of the side, but “Sweetness Follows” ends the first half on a pretty and elegant note.
“Monty Got A Raw Deal” starts side two in a somewhat reminiscent echo of “Drive” on side one; it’s supposed to be about Montgomery Clift, whom the Clash had already covered in “The Right Profile”. “Ignoreland” crashes through with its Neil Young tuning and angry diatribe against the Bush regime (which would be gone within a month, thanks in part to Stipe and his friends on MTV). This song has unfortunately not been any less relevant over the years. “Star Me Kitten” is built around the same vocals-as-machine effect as “I’m Not In Love” by 10cc. “Man In The Moon” follows, a tribute to a “comedian” not everyone thinks was funny since he’d first done the Mighty Mouse gag about 17 years earlier, but it’s still pretty catchy. “Nightswimming” still haunts, even for those who haven’t gone skinnydipping at any hour. It evokes a memory of summers long gone, and the carefree nights of youth. “Find The River” brings it all to a close with lyrics alternately hopeful and hopeless. (“I have got to find the river!” we’d declare emphatically as we listened to it for the fifth straight time on the bar jukebox.)
As autumn descended and the year drew to a close, Automatic For The People became a pleasant comfort. Little did we know it would be their last great album. It’s also the one we’ve listened to most when preparing for whatever the next album would be. While not above their first four, it’s still a remarkable collection of music. (Kurt Cobain said he’d wanted to record an album with the same acoustic approach. Instead, he shot himself. We still wonder what that album would have sounded like had he completed it.) Again, this was their last great album, and we might as well consider it their last album. It would have been a good way to go out.
Most pundits held the album in high regard years later on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, boosting the hype for the expanded editions. The cheaper double disc added their sole live performance from that year, captured approximately six weeks after the album’s release. Several of these tracks had been farmed out on various CD singles, so having it all in one place in sequence is welcome. The deluxe version added the usual visual component and a Blu-ray disc, plus another CD full of demos for the album, some of which were the basis for the finished songs. While many of the given song titles seem obscure at first glance, without being a complete spoiler the listener will hear working versions of the songs on the album, with only a few completely unreleased ideas. “Mike’s Pop Song” is a full-fledged Mike Mills composition, while “Devil Rides Backwards” is a curious set of lyrics even sleepier than the rest of the album. Another track of interest is “Photograph”, in a version before Natalie Merchant added her vocals for a various artists comp.

R.E.M. Automatic For The People (1992)—
2017 25th Anniversary Edition: same as 1992, plus 13 extra tracks (Deluxe adds another 20 tracks and Blu-ray)


  1. I still think Ignoreland sounds like a Green outtake, thematically and musically; I just don't think it fit within the context of these songs.

    Overall, an amazing album by a great group at the peak of their skills. Try Not To Breathe doesn't sound like anybody else! Pure REM.

    And no, I was never amused by Mr. Kaufman.

  2. i wasn't either-saw a great REM show in 85 or 6 here in the uk and i totally agree with the first four albums comment but yeah this is a keeper