A high school friend a year ahead of me first shared with me R.E.M.’s Green and the band’s hits compilation Eponymous. I was hopelessly hooked, slowly working backwards through their catalog using what now feels like long-lost processes of historical research. I sought out bootlegs, deciphered album artwork, and scoured pre-internet bulletin board systems for crude decodings of Michael Stipe’s lyrics. This was commitment I never applied to other musicians of the day, and have maintained with scant few since.
I was a jack of all nerd trades, master of none, surrounded by freaks and geeks and the occasional prep. We were all bearing witness to grand social statements rock’n’roll was trying to make with festivals and fundraising, finding common ground in nascent Gen-X activism around things like AIDS, hunger, the environment. Rolling Stone and slightly older peers built my kick-at-the-pricks soundtrack—Midnight Oil, 10,000 Maniacs, Public Enemy, Peter Gabriel old and new, and yes, “America’s Best Rock and Roll Band.”
Stipe’s free verse and the edgy jangle from the rest of Athens, Georgia’s favorite adopted sons were part of a musical movement then aping the ‘60s and ‘70s, inspiring fans to do, make, or respond to something. But the start of a political Singing Revolution also seemed to signal the end of R.E.M.’s artistic one. As sales and tour dates behind Green tapered off, so did the bogeymen of the Cold War and other global blights like apartheid. One of America’s most obliquely and yet most overtly political bands suddenly needed something new to sing about in the 1990s.
And so they chose to sing songs of themselves, experimenting on and with their own musicianship more than ever before. They poured on more folk, more Southern-fried balladry, more billowing introspection. They traded instruments and vocals, and added others from beyond their sphere, including the orchestral arrangements that brought chamber pop to the world’s doorstep. The initial result, 1991’s Out of Time, was on its face a grand achievement, a worldwide sales smash and award-winner with one of the band’s best-known singles, “Losing My Religion.”
As time has passed, more and more critical microscopes have found the LP imperfect, even overrated. The pop-song irony of “Shiny Happy People” was lost on irritated listeners who would skip over it. The mass-media grandstanding of “Radio Song” felt watered down even for its guest rapper KRS-One. The album’s soaring harmonies couldn’t escape the weight of a brooding stasis across songs like “Low,” “Endgame,” and “Country Feedback.” While Green came off as a “good” bad album, Out of Time bears the mantle of a “bad” good one.
But it also planted seeds for what came next, as demos for and production on its follow-up took the place of a concert tour. For all of its commercial success, Out of Time seemed to be mere practice for the statements made on 1992’s Automatic for the People. The former took two months to record, the latter more than a year. The effort shows; everything new and different about Out of Time was amplified on Automatic.
The advancing chamber pop of Automatic for the People is much more focused and integrated, and for that you can thank this album’s lone big-name guest star, John Paul Jones. The Led Zeppelin veteran helps individual arrangements feel not so much like stunts or afterthoughts, successfully guiding not just orchestral parts and players but their weird interactions with organ, accordion, dulcimer, oboe, and vocal affectations from bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry. The album is damn near baroque, with “Everybody Hurts” and more swinging in a waltz-like manner—go-home songs for the end of the 1980s prom or the 1780s promenade.
The time warp doesn’t stop there. Where R.E.M.’s best messages to this point were of-the-moment and immediate, Stipe makes specific generational jumps for the lyrics of Automatic. He references performers from the 1970s who were over-the-top in their own ways like pro wrestlers, glam rockers, Elvis, and Warren Zevon. He also looks to artists from the late 1950s and early 1960s who maybe didn’t sense the potential they held in their hands: The Tokens, Bill Haley, Montgomery Clift.
“Losing My Religion” might be Stipe’s best song, and he has others in his catalog that are more emotional or joyful, but Automatic for the People is the band’s apex of songwriting consistency. At first blush, most of the dozen tracks here feel mournful and death-obsessed, and some like “Try Not to Breathe” and “Find the River” really are. But I suggest this LP is actually about belief and identity: what happens approaching and after death, yes, but also explorations of depression and memory, as well as singing about the repression and expression of one’s true self.
In particular, by latching on to closeted leading man Clift (“Monty Got a Raw Deal”) and comic actor/performance artist Andy Kaufman (“Man on the Moon”) as song subjects, R.E.M. ask us to consider the overall concept of storytelling—hoaxes, kayfabe, the fourth wall, the construction and maintenance of reality. When you take these songs alongside the imagery of the beautiful, vaguely autobiographical “Nightswimming” and add in concomitant rumors about his health, it somehow feels both natural and unfortunately forced that Automatic for the People served as an unofficial coming-out album for Stipe. Out of necessity, some of his interviews over the next few years would shape the adjectives and qualifiers that helped maintain his particular reality.
While there are few actual anthems here—this is an even slower, more measured album than Out of Time—they are much more straightforward, or at least what passes for that in the R.E.M. universe. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight,” the album’s most fun and upbeat song, is a very specific story about a hotel payphone. “Drive” and “Everybody Hurts” are statements of support for their fans; where “Drive” is a declaration of independence filled with Peter Buck’s descending guitar lines, “Everybody Hurts” gives majestic, you-are-not-alone purpose to the saccharine songcraft R.E.M. attempted with “Shiny Happy People.”
And then there’s “Ignoreland,” which somehow manages to cleave R.E.M. from their past and cleave them to their future. It’s the band’s last great political song, a massive middle finger to the Reagan-Bush years that echoes the dense Buck riffs and militarized vocals of “Orange Crush,” but it’s also their first to consider the ultimate pointlessness of addressing politics in song. Two years later, with Monster and an accompanying world tour that would also have to do heavy lifting for the two albums prior, R.E.M. would try to prove that the renewed rock anger heard in grunge and hinted at in “Ignoreland” had not completely bypassed them.
In the meantime, they’d managed to recast their power-pop as high art and themselves as artistes, recalling the kind of New Wave and college rock acts who once embraced sophisti-pop and the New Romantic movement. (As a late aside, I’d love to hear The Cure cover “Sweetness Follows.” Go ahead, try to get that picture out of your head now.) All three of their first Warner Bros. albums positioned R.E.M. as idealistic art-punk kids getting older. Only Automatic for the People had the gall to portray them getting wiser.
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