Many critics and fans consider Automatic for the People to be R.E.M.’s finest hour. They’ll get no argument from me. Transformed into superstars by Out of Time, with millions waiting to see what they’d do for a follow-up, the band produced a complex, contemplative, and absolutely beautiful album.
Lyrically, the most frequent theme is death and loss. “Try Not to Breathe”‘s protagonist is an elderly woman contemplating her full life and how she wants to be remembered; “Sweetness Follows” is about the coming together of a family at a funeral. In “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and “Man on the Moon,” Michael Stipe considers long gone cultural figures such as Montgomery Clift and Andy Kaufman. Amid all this melancholy is a core of hope, optimism, and belief in the human spirit. There’s the urge to “hold on” in “Everybody Hurts,” one of the most direct songs Stipe has ever written, and another entreaty in “Sweetness Follows” to “live your life filled with joy and thunder.” There’s also the goofiness of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” which includes Stipe’s laughter over his mispronunciation of Dr. Seuss. The lyrics themselves are good, but what makes the songs great is Stipe’s emotional range, the way he can make a particular feeling almost tangible without having to overpower the music or the listener. I don’t think he’s ever been better as a performer than he is on this album.
It helps that he has such strong musical backing. While Bill Berry, Peter Buck and Mike Mills went into the studio expecting to do a harder rock record, they instead found themselves drawn to slower, more complex, often heavily acoustic arrangements. John Paul Jones added orchestral arrangements to four songs, including “Nightswimming,” which may well be my favorite song in the universe. The orchestral elements support Mike Mills’ beautiful piano melody, which perfectly fits Stipe’s reflections on the carefree spirit of youth. Mills also wrote the album closer, “Find the River,” which is quite possibly the best final track I know of. This time Mills’ keyboards balance with Peter Buck’s acoustic guitar and Stipe’s vocal to create a palpable sense of finality, a moment of looking back that’s calm yet intense because it sums up what’s gone before.
Buck and Bill Berry also contribute standout tracks to the album; “Everybody Hurts,” for example, was penned by Berry, while Buck contributed “Drive” and “Try Not to Breathe.” Buck’s songs in particular seem to hold a little more edge, a tinge of dark and ominous things on the horizon, but they’re still wonderfully constructed pieces of music. Outside of the peppy “Sidewinder” and the electric-guitar-driven “Ignoreland” (and maybe the choruses to “Man on the Moon”) this is generally a slow album, and while some have criticized those two songs for throwing off the album’s unified feel, I think both work well as interludes that try and cover similar themes from different vantage point, giving the album a little bit of variety to help individual tracks stand out.
Automatic was recently released in DVD-Audio format, featuring new mixes for both stereo and 5.1 channel surround sound. These mixes certainly allow the listener to hear more detail; there are certain instrumental flourishes as well as a line or two of vocals that I had not been aware of before the DVD. Some may find the tweaks a bit distracting, especially in the surround sound mix. It’s also a neat listening experience that gives some sense of the role mixing and production play on an album. The DVD-A also comes with images of Stipe’s handwritten and hand-typed lyric sheets, a short electronic press kit documentary on the making of the album and the restaurant that inspired its title, a photo gallery, and an extended set of liner notes. Since DVD-A players are not that common, I’d only recommend this version for the really hardcore fan.
This album is an outstanding piece of work, and the only reason I’m rating it a 4 is that Earl’s rating system won’t let me give it a 5.
- Drive (4:31)
- Try Not to Breathe (3:50)
- The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite (4:09)
- Everybody Hurts (5:20)
- New Orleans Instrumental No. 1 (2:15)
- Sweetness Follows (4:21)
- Monty Got a Raw Deal (3:17)
- Ignoreland (4:27)
- Star Me Kitten (3:16)
- Man on the Moon (5:14)
- Nightswimming (4:18)
- Find the River (3:49)
Released by: Warner Bros.
Release date: 1992
Total running time: 48:52