R.E.M. – ‘Automatic for the People’ 25 Years Later

A bonafide example of a band becoming elder statesmen

| October 5, 2017

Album cover courtesy of Warner Bros.

The 25th anniversary of R.E.M.’s seventh album “Automatic for the People” has arrived and it’s getting a special reissue this year. This reissue will contain 4 CDs featuring the album and demo recordings, a book featuring photos and liner notes and a Blu-Ray disc that contains a sound mix and music videos. So why is this record so special? What made this record get such treatment all these years later? Well, let’s turn the clock back.

R.E.M. was formed in 1980 and they would spend much the decade constantly touring and releasing six albums (“Murmur,” “Reckoning,” “Fables of the Reconstruction,” “Lifes Rich Pageant,” “Document” and “Green”). The band had a cult following and were championed by college radio, but little mainstream success. They were considered one of the very first Alternative rock bands who had a distinctive sound unlike any other band; Michael Stipe’s crooning, incoherent vocals, Peter Buck’s chiming guitars and Mike Mills’ multi-instrumental talent.

In 1991, R.E.M. released their sixth album “Out of Time.” The record saw the band elevate from an underground band to international stars. The single, “Losing My Religion” became their biggest hit that saw heavy rotation on MTV. Both “Out of Time” and “Losing My Religion” won them three Grammy awards. This also saw a change in the band musically. Buck picked up the mandolin and acoustic guitars in exchange for his electric guitar and Mills began to use the piano and organ more often. To makes things even more different, the band didn’t tour for the album and instead stayed at home.

Months after “Out of Time’s” release, the band reconvened to work on “Automatic for the People.” While they intended to go for a more rocking album, they ended up following the same idea as “Out of Time,” but this time the songs were more melancholic.

The mood is already set when you hear the guitar riff on “Drive.” There’s a sense of something ready to explode which slowly intensifies as you hear the crooning from Stipe. While Buck wasn’t using his electric guitar much at this period, he uses it when the song needs it. And when the song builds up to its peak, he gives a very simple melody that soars and will remain stuck in your head.

“Try Not to Breathe” is an example of the melancholy displayed on “Automatic.” The lyrics bring you the point of view of an elderly person accepting their death. However, there’s a bit of twist as the song progress that maybe there’s still a bit of conflict in the narrator if they really are accepting their death. A very unsettling track lyrically that is backed well by the croons and folk acoustic guitar.

A fascinating aspect of R.E.M.’s music is Stipe’s ability to write lyrics about serious topics to ones that are load of nonsense.  “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” definitely drive home the latter, he goes on about instant soup and “Cat in the Hat” that leaves your head scratching. This works as a break from the darkness that is prevalent in the album. I also love the chord progression and the orchestra (done by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin) gives a warm feeling after going through the intensity of “Try Not to Breathe.”

“Everybody Hurts” is the most famous song from this record. The very song that was plea to those who are contemplating suicide and notes that you should “take comfort in your friends” as well knowing that “you are not alone.” A very heartfelt message that once again shows Stipe’s range of topics in writing lyrics.

But the darkness comes again with “Sweetness Follows.” Here we see parents being buried and the children who were left behind wondering why they were distanced in the first place. Now that the parents are dead, they decide to become closer as the thought of losing each other would bring loneliness. I find this to be thought-provoking because the idea of how families have to stick together despite their differences.

Then there are the last three tracks “Man On the Moon,” “Nightswimming” and “Find the River,” which bring an excellent ending to the album. Undoubtedly they have become fan favorites in the band’s catalog.

“Man On the Moon” is a anthemic tribute to Andy Kaufman. Not only there are references to Kaufman’s lifestyle but to board games (Monopoly), Elvis, Darwin, Moses, Heaven and Egypt. With wonderful harmonies from Stipe and Mills and soaring lead guitars, this is one of R.E.M.’s most triumphant songs.

The ballad “Nightswimming” is an elegant track with Mills’ piano-playing and Stipe’s voice. A bittersweet ballad of nostalgia for the past, this is referring back to the early days of the band skinny dipping at night. It’s display state of the band they were in after the commercial success of “Out of Time.” They were no longer in the Indie/College Rock circle and many of their contemporaries (i.e. The Replacements or The Smiths) have split up. Plus, the fact the band members were already in their thirties and it’s been over 10 years since they formed.

Closing track “Find the River” gives a life-affirming feeling due to the warm sound of the vocal harmonies and the instrumentation of the piano and accordion. This is about the acceptance that the world is changing and a new generation is coming. Very fitting for the band at this stage as Grunge and Alternative rock were becoming popular in that time with bands like Nirvana citing R.E.M. as an influence to their music.

“Automatic for the People” was the point where the band had both commercial success and artistic creativity. Something not found often in many rock bands and I know very few bands who managed to keep this but not on the level R.E.M. had. Everything was clicking and it felt like this band could do no wrong.

The 25th anniversary reissue of “Automatic of the People” will be released on Nov. 10.

Track Picks: “Try Not to Breathe,” “Sweetness Follows,” “Man On the Moon,” “Nightswimming” and “Find the River”

Label: Warner Bros.

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Music

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