Automatic for the People is, in some respects, an accident. Following the success of Out to Time, R.E.M wanted to do an album that completely contrasted a pop work driven by mandolin. This contrast was of course nothing new for the band, but original intentions were to return the whole band to a hard rock sound, in line with the kind of acts that appeared with the rise of grunge. That of course didn’t happen: the most prominent guitar on the album is acoustic; songs are mainly backed by organs and the band dynamic has shifted so much that sometimes the rhythm section has disappeared in its entirety.
One has to wonder what was going through the band’s collective heads when they saw themselves creating an album as melancholic and intimate as Automatic for the People. There is that studio sheen of course, with session musicians and orchestral backing by none other than Led Zeppelin bass god John Paul Jones. But remove all that detail and leave just the guitars and tunes, the result is something akin to an American Pink Moon. Of course, you can’t remove that, and as a result the band created a studio product that is also nakedly emotional.
A big context in the album’s creation was the band’s position in pop culture at the time. They were one of the most popular bands in the world, ruling over other contemporaries like Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, both of who had flamed out in their own ways. But they were also looking forward to this new generation of rockers, many of whom appeared to be in movements that R.E.M. helped birth into being; Kurt Cobain was a huge fan of the band, and he became friends with Michael Stipe a short time before his passing. It is often said that the last album that Kurt listened to before his death was Automatic for the People.
Given this connection, given the frequent mentions to deceased celebrities, given that the album’s most famous song is an ode to not giving up on life, this has lead to many descriptions of Automatic for the People as being R.E.M’s album of death. In many respects, it is. There is no avoiding just how much that permeates this album. But, as is so often the case, it is also about the opposite; to have the knowledge of death and mortality, but to live on with that anyway. A very absurdist view of life, and the cover reflects that absurdity with a star ornament printed in black & white to look almost like a mace; a symbol of life and light made to look like a symbol of darkness and death (this was also somewhat true of the black and white picture of Stipe tired in the sea taken by Anton Corbijn, most famous for taking pictures of that other famous 80’s band). Added to this Automatic for the People contains some of the bands most Camusian absurdist lyrics to date, but is still the band at their most direct and affecting (except for two well placed and composed detours).
The position of the band in pop culture is the subject of the amazing opening track, “Drive”, where Stipe uses nineties slang and “rock around the clock” anachronisms that would be embarrassing if they were not intentional. He instead uses them to pose the questions of age and the obsolete, whether age means you know better than the youth or helps to make you patronising. This reading is further enhanced by the music video of the band crowd surfing in a slow motion black and white clip, showing the band to have both union and disconnect from the audience. Certainly a bold move to open the album following your biggest release, and perfectly matched by the acoustic led orchestration, and I use that word deliberate; the guitar starts quiet, preparing for the adventure ahead, but by the time the strings and electric guitar come in it is almost operatic (it is said to be inspired by Queen, and there are definitely hints of the previous year’s Innuendo album in there).
The rhythm returns to a pleasing waltz with “Try Not to Breathe”, with bells and tambourines tapping against the slow and deliberate notes of the guitar and bass. The pleasing nature quickly becomes complicated though when you realise it is about a man who would rather choose a death over life, whether that be suicide or because some kind of mercy killing. To intentionally complicate things the sentence act against each other, the emotions becoming complicated. “I need something to breathe” could be both the object of survival and the thing that will kill. The processed backing vocals sound distant, talking about things you will never see, and because this is from someone else it could either be voices from heaven or others calling about the things that will go on without them there. By the end those vocals sound angelic, giving what was probably the answer. Jesus, we’re only on the second song.
Fortunately we get some form a light relief in the form of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”, one of the two detours the band takes. Here it is because the track is quite peppy, with beginning “de de de’s”, a more up tempo beat and references to Dr. Seuss. As a result it has been somewhat dejected by Peter Buck, who thinks that it is almost too upbeat. In essence then this is this album’s “Shiny Happy People”, and comparatively it comes across (to me) so much better. The peppiness is still brought down by strings and organ, meaning it doesn’t aesthetically sound much different from the rest of the album, and this upbeat song is still based on the entire that the man lives on the floor and that the (this is of course before a payphone became a somewhat anachronistic symbol). Despite Stipe’s clarity in these years, “Sidewinder” does contain what is probably his single most misheard lyric (for what it’s worth, I first thought it said “call me the jam maker”). It is instead “call me when you try to wake her”, showing a certain obsession or need for the person on the other end, but can reach them due to sleep. Actually, at a stretch, it doesn’t differ too much from the album at all. As another nineties artist once said: “sleep is the cousin of death”.
We move from the most pop song to the most famous song. From the simple but effective chords to Stipe’s soaring vocals to the iconic 8 ½ inspired music video, “Everybody Hurts” has become an iconic weepy. It was said to be specifically made for teenagers, but I would say it works for anyone. With the gospel elements from the organ and backing vocal, it has a crafted quality of unity to it, much like songs by that other famous 80’s band (wait, I already did that). It could of course have accusations of saccharine or over-sentimentality, but as another writer here discussed, that is not inherently a bad thing to aim for. And while one of my favourite songs once said “don’t get sentimental/it always ends up drivel”, “Everybody Hurts” works in spades because it understands the thing the best inspirational songs understand. From “Hey Jude” to “i”, the most inspirational songs tend to first come from a place of sadness to be uplifted from in the first place. The contrast shows the journey, and “Everybody Hurts” shows that by contrasting our pain with everyone else’s. But by the time the bridge comes along, I’m just thinking about how gorgeous the melody is. It may tell me not to throw my hand, but I do into the air.
“New Orleans Instrumental No.1” – the only one on the album, so it didn’t really need the 1 – acts as a great transitional piece from “Everybody Hurts” to the next song, but is still a great, almost sparse work in its own right. The guitars are so modified that they work like strings, and I merges together beautifully with the chords of the rock organ and a ringing acoustic bass. Of course, even in a wordless piece they manage to fit in the theme of death, what with New Orleans most known musical tradition being funeral jazz.
Both the gospel and funeral elements are clearly apparent in “Sweetness Follows.” It also shows a bleak family scenario almost unbearable, with dead family members and apparently brothers and sisters who are not at all fond of each other. Despite the emotive qualities of the organ, what really makes the greatness of this song is Peter Buck’s careful and delicate use of feedback, first displayed in full for “Country Feedback” but here creating a foggy atmosphere before rising for the chorus. And that key change from the verses to the chorus also brings the song hope even amidst such bleakness; “sweetness follows” is likely hope for some kind of afterlife, but rather than that being a reason to end life here it is instead an attempt to display how things on Earth seem almost trivial. Traditional faith will be tested later on the album, but for now this contrast keeps things complex instead of cloying, and brings the “Drive Side” at a suitable location to end.
The “Ride Side” of Automatic for the People begins with the first song that is clearly about a sense of celebrity in “Monty Got a Raw Deal”. Like “Drive” it begins with a beautiful acoustic guitar melody that is then built upon, first with a quiet bass and then eventually erupting with drum and melodica. If one didn’t know Montgomery Clift and his life, the description by Stipe shows a man first in beaches and other idyllic locations, before the second verse shows him confused and betrayed by the world. Stipe does this in a way so much in the first person that it feels like he is there beside him, and that be because he feels both kinship and fascination with Monty, a man with a mixed sexuality and a celebrity double life, who was ultimately experienced tragedy from both outside sources (a car crash) and the price of fame. There is an intimacy attempted, with the deliberately awkward “movies had that movie thing” showing a sense of humility, but this fantasy still has to be kept from a distance; as Stipe says, “You don’t me anything.”
This moves on to the second detour of the album in the political vitriol of “Ignoreland”. Of all the songs on the album this is the one that seems to sound like it belongs on a different album, but it almost doesn’t matter because of how good a song a it is. It’s always interesting to see how political songs match or different from our current situation, and here the main thing that dates its political intents are the dates. Because otherwise lines about the “Us vs Them” attitude and “The information nation took their clues from all the sound-bite gluttons” still effect all governments today in big ways. It’s a biting song, from the bouncing Mills’ bass to the almost overpowering guitars, but the most telling line being its final one “ I know that this is vitriol./ No solution, spleen-venting,/ but I feel better having screamed. Don’t you?” If we see it in context with the rest of the album it is almost like a companion to “Sweetness follows,” in that it reacts to mortality with wrath and wants for change instead of thinking that compared to the spiritual world things here can be seen as arbitrary.
We seem to simmer down for “Star Me Kitten”, which from the surface and the title seems almost like “You Light Up My Life,” a quiet ballad. This is before it reveals its hand as being more like “Closer,” someone who in the midst of an emotional break up wants to end things with some goodbye fucking (it is important he uses that word, and it is spoken with a cold aggression). In contrast to “Everybody Hurts” the lyrics here are staggeringly unsentimental, with only slight moments of nostalgia before negotiating the terms with a detail that is almost petty (and yet, as we have seen in many relationships, recognisable). Barring the instrumental this is the shortest song, with gospel vocals and sliding guitar lines helping keep a weightless, numb quality. Short, but by no means sweet.
This fades out beautifully into “Man on the Moon”, a song that is in my competition for my single favourite R.E.M. song. With the bass taking on the main melody as the guitar chords slide up and down, it has the dream like quality of the best R.E.M songs backed by both pano and the return of the mandolin. It is a strangely simple song, but there is so much complex stuff going on in it, and not just in the lyrics (written at first separately from the band), but how it combines heavenly baroque pop – in the lightness of percussion and the beauty of the arrangements – with Elvis impersonations to create a elevating sense of humour that is also completely sincere. This song is best known as the song from which the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon is based on, and yet, somehow, this bizarre tribute to one of the most absurd comedian to ever live is one of the most thorough explorations of fate in any song. It covers all modern bases from which we derive our faith and values, from entertainment figures to games to religion to science. It is a song which combines the religious qualities of both St Peter and truck stops, and by the end Stipe (and in turn Any Kaufman) combine all these things with the idea of being hoaxed, as those who believe the moon landing is fake want to protest. But with the line “If you believe there’s nothing up his sleeve, then nothing is cool” it gives the game away, the game that has been conveyed throughout the whole album: we give ourselves our own life goals. Life is worth living when you work by the goals and beliefs you inspire to. For me this is Stipe’s pinnacle as a songwriter.
The two songs that end this album are almost of piece, given how that both use water imagery in metaphors for life and death. As if to emphasise it is a suite, “Nightswimming” begins with the preparation of the orchestra before moving into what is in fact the band’s most traditional piano ballad since “Perfect Circle”. The composition here comes from a piano melody from Mike Mills, and it is great enough that it could have worked just on its own. But then that John Paul Jones orchestral arrangement comes in, first acting as small accompaniment until the woodwind helps the song come to a wilting end. Stipe uses this to convey a true nostalgic sentimentality, painting the scene of people skinny dipping into the water amidst a “tight forever drum” full moon during an August, all of which uses the water as both a place of sanctuary and a place to show the passage of time.
This then goes into the other water based finale “Find the River,” primarily a countryside ballad driven by melodica, organ and Buck’s acoustic guitar which has proven so crucial to this album. By the time the gospel vocals and piano come it, it has merged together almost every motif from the album to reach its conclusion. Stipe also weaves in previous elements, combining the car imagery you’d expect from a record with a “Drive Side” to the ultimate central water metaphor. The River moving to the ocean here is a metaphor for life, as it is for American artworks from Huckleberry Finn to Dead Man. And like in both of those Stipe shows the trail as somewhat absurd, but by the end of such a emotionally dense album the feeling is positive. “All of this is coming your way”. What is meant for you will be here soon.
When I said at the beginning of this series that I knew very little about R.E.M., I did leave out one exception to this; I have Automatic for the People. So I’m wondering how much of my decision to pick it as number one is based on my Nightswimming-style nostalgia of the record’s memories. Doing this series made me wonder how much this would change with a further context, and instead it has made me realise how much I hate the rankings make me choose. Because in my head it is a three way tie between the ethereal puzzle of Murmur, the aesthetic joy of Lifes Rich Pageant and the emotional landmine that is this album. But, if I had to pick now, I will go with my emotions. Automatic for the People is a classic, but you already knew that.
But now that the band had done this, what would happen when they released the monster?
R.E.M Album Rankings
- Automatic for the People
- Lifes Rich Pageant
- Fables of the Reconstruction
- Out of Time
- Dead Letter Office/Chronic Town