R.E.M.’s ‘Automatic For The People’ Turns 20: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
One measure of a band’s staying power is how they weather the ebb and flow of trends in popular music. Mainstream radio listeners didn’t yet know the name Kurt Cobain when R.E.M. released 1991’s Out Of Time. That album yielded the band’s biggest pop hit, the mandolin-laced “Losing My Religion.” By fall of that year, Cobain’s Nirvana had released what would become a multi-Platinum mega-hit and spurred on an angst-ridden new rock genre: grunge. It seemed obvious that R.E.M. would need to rock tougher on their next record.
While Seattle overtook “Athens G-A” on the charts, Michael Stipe and his bandmates were already recording their eighth disc, Automatic For the People, released on October 7, 1992. The album’s liner notes jauntily explained its title (“Automatic For The People is the motto and service mark of Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods in Clarke County, Georgia”), but the 12-track collection defiantly lacked guitar rage: instead it contained nine mid-tempos or ballads, many ruminating on themes of loss and death.
R.E.M. — “Drive”
Nobody Tells You What To Do Lead single “Drive” lyrically read like a rousing call to arms (“Hey, kids, rock’n’ roll”), but was instead a bleak mid-tempo offering, notable for its grandiose orchestral arrangement composed by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. It’s beautiful and unlike anything else in their catalog, but the pop charts didn’t take to it as they had “Losing My Religion.”
The single reflected the album’s tone: inward-facing sadness pervades much of Automatic. One of the album’s most defining moments comes on the mournful “Sweetness Follows,” which Stipe opens with the heaviest of lines: “Readying to bury your father and your mother / what did you think when you lost another?” Another track, the folky “Try Not To Breathe,” seems like a suicide note: “I will try not to breathe/ this decision is mine / I have lived a full life.”
R.E.M. — “Man On The Moon”
Now It’s Time To Sing Along The band — or its label — chose to highlight the sprightly “Man On The Moon” as the second single. A tribute to the late comedian Andy Kaufman, a scan of the lyrics reminds one that Stipe was perhaps the smartest of rock’s frontmen. With references from Newton to Darwin — and a decent Elvis impersonation — it’s easily the most buoyant track on Automatic. Though it peaked at #30 on the Hot 100, the song was resurrected years later when it inspired the title of Milos Forman’s 1999 Kaufman biopic.
R.E.M. — “Everybody Hurts”
R.E.M. tipped the album’s darkness upside down on the fourth single, a sweeping ballad called “Everybody Hurts.” The 32-year old Stipe crafted a sort of musical hug using a simple lyric, sung from the vantage point of experience (“Take comfort in your friends. Everybody hurts. Don’t throw your hand. Oh, no”). The band has since said the song was written as a “straightforward” message to the audience.
Although “Everybody Hurts,” with a memorable video inspired by a Fellini film sequence, was one Automatic’s bigger moments, it’s actually the more unassuming “Nightswimming” that has most earned its place in the pantheon of great R.E.M. songs. Set to a cascading piano motif, the lyric is a meditation on the vulnerability of youth: “The fear of getting caught, of recklessness and water. They cannot see me naked. These things, they go away, replaced by every day.” It is arguably R.E.M.’s prettiest song, and Stipe’s most plaintive performance.
R.E.M. — “Nightswimming”
Sweetness Follows If the musical landscape of 1992 was defined by internal emotion processed as visceral rage on songs like Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” Stipe used a more pastoral language to express himself throughout Automatic. On the lilting album closer, ”Find The River,” he paints vivid images (“Ginger, lemon, indigo / Coriander stem and rose of hay”) over a lyric that shifts from a frustrated “None of this is going my way” to hopeful resolution in the album’s final words: “Pick up here and chase the ride / the river empties to the tide / all of this is coming your way.”
Depending on how you view 1994’s follow-up, Monster, many see Automatic For the People as the glorious final chapter to R.E.M.’s “imperial” phase, during which time they released eight albums over a span of nine years. Though the band stopped touring for several years, the album went multi-Platinum and remains a career high, favored by fans and critics. It’s clear proof that an internationally acclaimed band need never bow to the pressure to simply rock. A sharp artistic turn can yield the sweetest rewards. Automatic For The People is music meant for lying on the grass, headphones on, staring into a vast night sky.