It’s hard for me to talk about any R.E.M. album without bringing up a little personal history first. In a nutshell, R.E.M. were, quite literally, my guides to a new world of music that has lasted to this day. Allow me to explain.
I grew up a child of the 1980’s. I won’t rehash some of the decade’s more embarrassing musical and cultural moments, VH1 has created many a show delving into these touchstones, but I will tell you who I enjoyed musically, just so you have a frame of reference. I won’t explain all the background as to why, but some of my favorite artists were, in no particular order: Van Halen, Genesis, Run-DMC, Pink Floyd, Crowded House, Rush, Guns ‘n Roses, the Miami Vice soundtrack, and the Beastie Boys, of course.
In 1987, I moved from Long Island to Sidney, NY. Explaining the long-term ramifications of that is not necessary or relevant here, but you could only imagine. Nevertheless, I was always a big music geek growing up, but culture shock, courtesy of Sidney’s complete lack of culture, inevitably pushed me deeper into my music obsession. I would watch hours of MTV to get back at my parents. You make me move from my friends I’ve known all my life, well, fuck you, I’m going to sit in the house and just watch TV.
Alcoholics (and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction) talk about a moment of clarity where you instantly see things in a whole new light and the world is never the same again. My moment was seeing the video for “It’s the End of the World As We Know” late one night. It was unlike any song I had heard up to that point. I think the very next day, I saw the video for “The One I Love”, and that was it. My musical interests changed on the spot. Next came The Cure, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, Sonic Youth, Flaming Lips, etc. My life hasn’t been the same since and it’s all because of that damn video of some little skater punk in an abandoned cabin in the woods trying to do ollies.
Now to Automatic for the People. This album followed close behind Out of Time, which I absolutely loved. That album has gotten a bad rap over time and Automatic seems to be the chic go-to choice as top R.E.M. album of all time. I disagree, but just slightly. Let me be very frank and honest here. I’m not a big lyrics guy. Never have been, maybe I will be someday. I’ve always been completely tuned into the sound and the mood it creates for me. I could give 2 shits if Stipe repeated, “You’re an asshole” 500 times, if it has a solid hook and a killer rhythm, I’m cool. With that said, and being well aware of Stipe’s propensity of virtually unintelligible lyrics (especially on the first few albums. I dare you to tell me what the fuck he’s saying on some of the songs from Murmur), these lyrics have some heft and weight to them. And it’s sad, which I’m perfectly OK with. For me, who had been listening to R.E.M. for 5 years at this point, this was the first album I heard from them that sounded mature. This was no longer an underground college rock band. This was now a mature, older, more refined musical group that has lost its innocence and has taken an assured step into the next phase of their career. Out of Time hinted at this sound, Automatic revealed it in all its epic glory.
“Drive” is the perfect opening song that I feel sets the tone for this entire record. It’s all here, acoustic, electric, spot-on drumming, a great solo, orchestration, but the reverb, to me, adds the perfect touch.
I forgot how good a song “Try Not to Breathe” was. Listening to it now, reminds me of some of their older work more than I remembered.
“Sidewinder” sucks, in my humble opinion. I would have been fine with that left off the record. I just don’t feel like it fits on here at all. This is my least favorite song.
“Everybody Hurts” – OK, at first, I thought this was a great song. It is. But, man did it get overplayed on the radio and on MTV. It’s very difficult for me to listen objectively to this song without thinking about that history. I know MTV and videos may seem like a foreign concept these days, but the channel actually had some relevancy until about 1994. Then it just slowly became what its become today. Very sad. Nevertheless, they played this video until you wanted to jab pencils in your eyeballs. Jesus, they killed it. I still remember when the video won Best Director at the 1994 VMAs over Sabotage (blasphemy, I know), and MCA from the Beastie Boys, in full Nathaniel Hornblower gear, stormed the stage, pushed Stipe out of the way, grabbed the mic, proclaimed that Spike Jonze should have won, and claimed that he had the original idea for Star Wars. I shit you not. I love the Beastie Boys.
“New Orleans Instrumental No.1” is a well placed interlude. I like the mood of this and no Stipe lyrics, which helps. We all need a break after “Everybody Hurts”.
“Sweetness Follows” brings us right back to death and depression. The cello (or bass) is dominant here, but I love the feedback on the guitar.
“Monty Got a Raw Deal”, to me, sounds like an earlier R.E.M.song as well, but the lyrics don’t. I also realized that you finally get some of the classic Mills backing vocals here. There’s not enough on this album as a whole.
“Ignoreland” and “Star Me Kitten” are barely worthy tracks and do their best to keep your attention until the 4th quarter.
My most enjoyable section, without question, is the last three tracks on this album. I’ve listened to a lot of albums over the years and something I’ve realized in listening to this now is that there a few albums that end with songs of such high quality and timelessness. Most albums just limp across the finish line, but not Automatic for the People. It ends with “Man on the Moon”, a wonderful melancholy tribute and incredibly catchy; “Nightswimming”, with its longing for days past, piano at forefront, and they end with orchestration that still chokes me up; and “Find the River”, which gloriously ends this run with a slow, yet slightly upbeat tempo, and some of Stipe’s finest lyrics. This is my favorite song.
So, I’ll wrap this up with the requisite ratings. First, the reminiscence factor – 9 out of 10. I was slowly rotting at SUNY Cortland when this came out in late 1992. I was a junior in college, just became a father (a story for another time, but my daughter’s now 16 and her mother and I have stayed together through it all), and was in what I like to call my “lost years”. I was still neck deep in Check Your Head and the whole alternative/grunge movement, but this still struck a chord with me. Not surprisingly, I relate to this album more now than I did then.
Overall – 8.5 out of 10. I still enjoy this album a hell of a lot. Yet, to this day, when I want to listen to R.E.M., this album is probably 3rd or 4th on my list. I may choose Murmur, Reckoning, Document, even Out of Time, before Automatic for the People. But that doesn’t diminish how solid this album is and this exercise has given me a greater appreciation for this work. I like listening to a group’s progression from album to album. On Automatic for the People, these guys are no longer carefree musical geeks from Athens. They are now in their 30’s, have families, and mortality is suddenly a conscious thought. I can relate.