Photo Credit: Anton Corbijn
R.E.M. are recognized as pioneers of the alternative rock genre, influencing peers like Nirvana, Pavement, Wilco and countless others who followed in their wake. The Athens group is noted for Peter Buck’s chiming arpeggiated guitar style; Michael Stipe’s unique vocals and enigmatic lyrics; Mike Mills’ melodic basslines and Berry’s tight, understated drumming style. Over their remarkable 31-year-long career, R.E.M. released fifteen albums, toured internationally, won multiple GRAMMYs® and were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. It’s a wonder that a band as cerebral, stylistically adventurous and politically outspoken as R.E.M. achieved mainstream success–and sustained it for decades! It’s that unlikely magic that makes them a strong contender for America’s greatest band.
Released in 1992, Automatic for the People was the prolific rockers’ 8thalbum and is widely considered to be the finest of their solid-across-the-board discography. By the time of Automatic’s release, R.E.M. had already made the climb from cult band to internationally successful act, but this was the album that solidified their status as the biggest, most important rock band in America (just ask Pitchfork, Variety or Rolling Stone). Stubbornly following their muse as always, the quartet released a baroque, strings-heavy collection of ruminations on mortality and loss completely out of step with the grunge era. It may not have been on-trend, but Automaticwas irresistibly tuneful and gorgeously melodic. It’s stunning to realize that “Everybody Hurts” “Man on the Moon” and “Nightswimming”–three iconic hits that remain in heavy radio rotation to this day–were allon this album. It also yielded the popular if slightly less ubiquitous singles “Drive,” “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” and “Find the River.” This reflective, mournful masterpiece is a no-skipper.
Written immediately after R.E.M. announced they were disbanding, this piece examines the subtle alchemy that made the band almost mythologically great.
“What other U.S. group was as good for as long?” Nobody, that’s who.
This 9.3 review was written following the album’s 25thanniversary reissue. It appraises the brooding, transitional album as still emotionally and politically resonant all these years later.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE…
“Try Not to Breathe” - As Stipe told Song Exploder, when he first heard the demo of this track, its repetitive, loping structure reminded him of the “heaving motion of a boat rocking on the ocean…also, it could feel very much like someone breathing, or trying to stop breathing.” He was inspired to write the song from the perspective of his beloved grandmother at the end of her life (“I have seen things you will never see/I want you to remember”). That morose lyrical content is accentuated by a pensive dulcimer riff and a call-and-response organ part. And we’d be remiss not to mention Mike Mills’ soaring backing vocals, which stick in your head long after you’ve heard them. Reflecting on the album decades later, he told Stereogum,“I felt like John Lennon when I came up with [that].”
“Monty Got a Raw Deal” - “Monty Got a Raw Deal” is an elegy for the troubled Fifties movie star Montgomery Clift. Stipe seems to see much of his own story in Clift’s, making it feel like a statement of self-acceptance when he offers the empathetic assurances “You don’t own me anything” and “Virtue isn’t everything/So don’t waste time.” Compositionally, the song is largely Buck’s, with a riff written on bouzouki (a mandolin-like Greek instrument).
“Find the River” - The album’s closer and final single isn’t an airplay staple like its sister ballad “Nightswimming,” but it’s just as much of a triumph. Both songs grapple, through the metaphor of water, with transience, mortality and bittersweet remembrance. Delicate, luminous harmonies augmented by spare instrumentation lend an understated eloquence to the proceedings.
DID YOU KNOW?
- The album’s ninth track is a lusty love ballad the band was planning to call “Fuck Me Kitten”…until they played it for Meg Ryan. She loved the song, but commented that it may get pulled from shelves in small, conservative towns because of the profane title. Thus, they changed the obscenity to “Star,” in reference to the asterisks used to censor curse words.
- The lyrics and vocal melodies for “Man on the Moon,” one of R.E.M.’s all-time greatest songs, didn’t come together until the very last day of recording. (It’s a pretty handy reference to whip out the next time you get criticized for procrastinating.)
- “Everybody Hurts” was released as a single in April 1993. Its Fellini-inspired music video was directed by Jake Scott, son of the legendary Blade Runner filmmaker Ridley. In the video, shot outside San Antonio, Stipe wanders through a massive interstate traffic jam, eventually inspiring his fellow road warriors to ditch their cars, too. The clip picked up four trophies at the MTV Video Music Awards and earned Stipe praise for his impressive acting chops.
- According to Mike Mills, he recorded his part for “Nightswimming” on the same piano that Derek and the Dominos used for the epic coda to “Layla.”
- The political rock epic “Ignoreland” was inspired by Neil Young. “The song is written in Neil Young’s tuning – not that he owns it,” Buck told Melody Maker in 1992.“But the Es are tuned down to D, like in ‘Cinnamon Girl.’ I admit it; he’s the one I learned that tuning from.”
Listen to Automatic For The People in its entirety on your preferred streaming platform or purchase on wax below.
Words: Katherine McCollough