Automatic For The People, the 8th studio release by R.E.M., is an impeccable piece of work. It comes as no surprise that this is considered one, if not the best album that they’ve produced. It’s a slow, melancholy reflection on life, loss, mourning and death… and it’s beautiful.
Album Title: Automatic For The People
Genre: Alternative rock
Label: Warner Bros.
R.E.M. are a band that hit the ground running with their debut release Murmur in 1983. The boys from Athens, Georgia hit the scene with a taste of quiet alternative rock that was elegantly constructed and executed. Stipes cryptic lyrics and unique vocals blended with Bucks jangly guitars, Bills seemingly intuitively placed bass riffs and Berry’s melodic and driven beats on Murmur drew incredible critical acclaim; and it didn’t stop there.
Between the 9 years of Murmur and Automatic for the People R.E.M. graced us with the likes of Reckoning, Document, and Green (to name a few). Out of Time, the predecessor of Automatic for the People, is what threw R.E.M. from being a cult band to an international act. It features the Grammy award winning “Losing My Religion” and saw the band draw in elements of Country which continued into the ’92 release of Automatic.
There are so many fantastic moments on this record – the orchestral themed moments found on most of the tracks and arranged by the man himself, John Paul Jones. The nervous, shaky quality created on “Try Not To Breathe” through Stripes delivery and Bucks rhythmic acoustic guitar. The fact that they kept the take of Stipe singing ‘Zeus’ instead of ‘Seuss’ and laughing his way into the chorus of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”; and of course, the behemoth of a track, “Man On The Moon”.
Throughout the record you hear a few embellishments; count-ins and some speech to kick off the tracks. It creates this atmosphere that these are still the same young men cracking a beer, turning on an amp and running through some riffs like they were to begin with. The production really lends itself to this as it gives this organic impression that increases the accessibility to the songs. Despite setting out to be a more Rock-y album (of the 12 tracks there are realistically only 3 or 4 rockers) the whole thing feels subdued. Everything seems emphatic, whether it’s the beat that kicks in on “Drive”, Bucks’ cutting strums in the verses of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” or Stipes almost pained, mournful delivery in some of the more ballard-y numbers like “Nightswimming”.
Instrumentally there’s hardly a thing wrong with it and it’s been mixed to perfection. There’s no clutter, everything on this album is there for a reason. Whether it’s to fill the gaps that other instrumentation have left or lead the line alongside Stipes vocals. The fact that the band themselves went away and recorded 30 demos tracks, each member experimenting with each others instruments before showing Stipe and heading into the studio to record really highlights the meticulous nature and preparation involved.
“Follow The River”, with its simple steady beat and acoustic guitar making the banks, the melancholic, mournful sound of Stipes’ vocals the current of the river, the choral backing vocals and jangle of the pianos leading us to this feeling of hopeful wonder. This album may touch on heavy, morbid themes, but it finishes itself off the way it should – not looking back longingly but forward as “The river empties to the tide, All of this is coming your way”.
One thing that really hits me about this record is that there’s a strong sense of loss and discovery. The boys are reflecting the past decade in their 20s, their accomplishments, their losses and what life means at 30. The song “Everybody Hurts” is perhaps the easiest song to showcase this with its uncharacteristically simple lyrics. That track alone should suggest that this record isn’t just for the disillusioned 20 something year old but anyone really going through a substantial change.
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