2020 Album Draft- Round 1 Pick 7 -Dave- A Sound Day Selects- R.E.M. Automatic For The People.
Dave- A Sound Days blog can be found at https://soundday.wordpress.com/
Rarely we hear of a musician saying a great piece of music came to them in a dream. Rarer still is the listener who encounters some great piece that way, but such was my introduction to R.E.M.’s great 1992 opus, Automatic for the People. Wait… what?
Back in ’92, I was a young single guy living in a kind of shoddy basement apartment. One thing I did have though was a love of music and some pretty good stereo gear. In my college years, I’d gotten into the habit of leaving the stereo on, quietly, at night when I went to bed. Seemed like the music helped me sleep a bit better. Doubtless there were times when whatever song the FM station was playing infused its way into my dreams, but one night that fall, it was different.
It was probably 4 AM, and I was sound asleep when there was something brand new being played. “Snap, crack, bushwhack, tie another to the rack, bab-eee.” Unmistakably the nasal voice of Michael Stipe, but what was this? It was new and unfamiliar. I actually found my sleeping self so intrigued I woke up, and turned up the stereo in time to hear the closing few bars off the first single from their eighth studio album, Automatic for the People. I instantly wanted to hear it again.
By that time, I was already a very big fan of theirs. Although I’d really only jumped on their fast-rising bandwagon around the time of their fourth record, Lifes Rich Pageant, I’d quickly gone on to love their quirky evolution and all their sonic personas, from jangly garage rockers in the early days to cleanly-produced pop rockers, to experimental country-rock band on their previous effort, Out of Time. I’d collected the entire set of their studio albums as well as their IRS Records greatest hits package and none collected much dust on my record shelves. This first nocturnal taste of Automatic… though led me to believe that the new one was going to be something really special that might make it difficult for even their best prior works to shoulder their way into my CD player for awhile. I was right.
Automatic for the People to me was the Sgt. Pepper for Generation X. A masterpiece from the pre-eminent band of the times, a solid set of songs which blended together into something even greater than the sum of the parts. Indeed, the bassist (not to mention keyboardist and now and again vocalist) Mike Mills says “it’s our most cohesive record. It’s the strongest from first to last.” Few would argue with him. While there’s debate aplenty as to the band’s greatest song, there’s far less disagreement over their best, most complete record.
The Sgt. Pepper analogy isn’t accidental. Like The Beatles, R.E.M. began as a relatively raw, basic rock band with the usual guitar, bass and drums and reasonably simple song structures. As time went by, they became more proficient at playing, writing and not insignificantly, a little bored with the early, easy sounds. They began experimenting with bits of other musical genres, and began to learn other instruments and yearn to play them. That was especially true in R.E.M. with their great guitarist Peter Buck, who by Out of Time found the mandolin and was liking to play it and acoustic guitars a bit more than his early works lent themselves to. And like the mid-’60s Beatles, success gave them a lot of leeway. Warner Bros. had signed them to a huge contract about four years earlier and after one successful, but not wildly different album (Green), had taken a chance with them on the ’91 album and had been richly rewarded. Out of Time had mandolins, country-ish songs, a silly kids singalong with Kate Pierson of the B-52s and could’ve alienated many. Instead it won them tons of new fans, gave them one of the decade’s most-played radio hits in “Losing My Religion”, won them Grammys and ended up being one of the biggest “alt rock” records ever at that point. So when it came to Automatic for the People, Warner figured it was worth gambling on their unconventional approach once again.
R.E.M. by that point were amazingly self-aware. They knew their strengths, they knew their weaknesses. They knew their place in the music world with their rising profile, and their place in life. They knew they couldn’t do it all, so they looked to a great who could add what was missing. Enter John Paul Jones, the ex-Led Zep bassist, who joined them and added orchestral string sections to fill out the sound in places. A listen to the subtle, yet brilliant strings behind songs like “Drive” and “Nightswimming” suggest Jones was the guy the Beatles should have brought in to fill out Let It Be instead of the heavy-handed Phil Spector. They were also self-aware enough to know they were too burned out at the time to do a grueling world tour, so they could happily put out minor-key songs that might not necessarily fill a football stadium. There’d be time enough for bombastic tunes when they felt like going on the road again.
Michael Stipe, once shy with a trademark mumbling vocal delivery had never sounded clearer or more confidant. He’d done an acoustic special or two with the band and told Rolling Stone “it showed that I can sing…they’re just good songs and I’ve got a pretty good set of pipes.”
But mostly, there were the songs. Automatic… showcased the band at the top of their game in every way. The writing, the playing, and let’s not forget the spot-on production from their long-time friend and co-worker Scott Litt. Check out touches like the tiny reverb added in to “Sweetness Follows” or the mixing of Mike Mills backing vocals to add the perfect Beach Boys-like touch to “Find the River.”
The songs were somewhat down in nature, at the time leading to speculation Stipe might have AIDS or could be dying. True enough, there were some rather bleak themes (“Sweetness Follows” begins with “readying to bury your father and your mother”; “Everybody Hurts” is a straight-up anti-suicide message) but Mills says of that “mortality is a theme that writers have chosen to work with throughout time. It speaks of the fragility and beauty of life, and living it to the fullest.” Happily Michael Stipe wasn’t dying but he had seen people around him do so and was perhaps coming to terms with his place in life and the “dying” of his privacy that stardom brought. The hit “Man on the Moon” with the references to the late Andy Kaufman and the hint of Elvis as well as “Monty Got A Raw Deal” , about dead, closeted gay actor Montgomery Clift, address that, but in a pleasingly upbeat way.
“Drive” was an offbeat choice for a first single, and while it didn’t rival “Losing My Religion” on the charts, it did well enough and really was a fine choice for first single and first track. It’s up-and-down, start-and-stop approach mirrored the whole album with its up-and-down variety. From the fiery, anti-right wing “Ignoreland” to the 10cc-inspired, twisted love song of “Star Me Kitten” to the unavoidably catchy “Man on the Moon” it’s an every-changing but consistently fine effort. And we haven’t even really discussed the final two tracks on it, “Nightswimming” and “Find the River.”
Bono picked the former as one of the 60 songs that changed his life and says of it “I’ve rarely felt the innocence it suggests with such intensity as when I’m listening to it.” It’s a nice simple piano and strings ode to the joys of youth, but for me, the song after it, “Find the River” is simply the most flat-out beautiful piece the band ever created, and leaves us with a soothing, quiet optimism that we could all use these days.
Many seemed to share my sentiments. Although it got stalled at #2 on U.S. charts, it spent over a year on them. While at home, it fell a bit short of Out of Time in sales, it still went quadruple platinum, but their appeal was growing globally, leading to it being their biggest selling album overall, with more than 15 million sold.
We’ll give the last word on Automatic for the People to Rolling Stone. The music mag called it “musically irresistible” , suggesting the “Athens subversives reveal a darker vision that shimmers with a new, complex beauty.” It makes it my “automatic” choice to lead off this exercise.