Friday, March 21, 2014

The Great Albums: Automatic for the People by R.E.M.

So far in The Great Albums series, I have taken a look at three different albums, and the one thing these albums all have in common, other than the obvious one of being great albums (duh!), is that they all hail from across the pond in Merry Olde England. So, with that in mind, and with myself being a red-blooded American boy (I am, really), I think it's about time to toss a good old fashioned American album into the mix. Now I don't know exactly how old fashioned Automatic for the People is, but R.E.M. does hail from the Bible Belt deep south of Athens, Georgia, and even though they, and their hometown, are an atypical blue swatch of artistic liberalness amongst a red-belted, bible-thumpin' swath of good ole boy Southern inhospitality, these are still more than good enough credentials for me to count this as a great old fashioned American album from a great American band. So let's get on with it kids.

I spoke earlier of the band's culturally rich hometown being caught smack dab inside of an otherwise conservative Georgia (stuck inside of Georgia with the Athens blues again, perhaps?), but it is perhaps being stuck in this very situation that has given R.E.M. such an intriguing verve to their sound and overall attitude toward music and life.  Much like Austin Texas, Athens Georgia is an oasis of artistic freedom surrounded by a vast desert of the mundane and ordinary, and Stipe, Buck, Mills, and Berry seem to feed off of this isolationist lifestyle to blend together old school folksy rock and roll and powerful guitar rock with a nouveau esoteric understanding of modern life and the more sensitive side of things, and this mélange of stylistic influences, often put to partial use in past R.E.M. records, comes to a perfectly blended tee with Automatic for the People. I must admit that I was an R.E.M. fan from way back, back before fame and fortune, back before any radio airplay outside of college radio stations, back before anyone but a select few nerds like myself knew anything about this godfather of Nerd Rock quartet. Many today give the band, and especially lead man Michael Stipe, a hard time, thinking themselves another level of cool if they put down one of the finest American bands of not just the 1980's and 1990's, but of all damn time. So there. Take that you hipstery anti-hipsters!

In 1987, the band had a minor hit with their fifth studio album Document, featuring It's The End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) and the top ten hit, The One I Love. The following years they went even bigger with Green (just missed out on the top ten by peaking at number 12 on the Billboard charts), and the hit singles Orange Crush, and the top ten Stand. Finally, after years of nerdom obscurity (we faithful loved 'em from day one and Murmur), R.E.M. was in the big time, and this big time would become even bigger in 1991, with the release of Out of Time, which rocketed to number one (one of only two R.E.M. albums to reach the top spot - 1994's Monster being the other). It's smash hit single, Losing My Religion, went to number 4 on Billboard's Hot 100, and still stands as the closest the band has ever come to a number one single. But we aren't here to talk about the band's seven previous albums, but to talk about their eighth, and in my opinion their best. Also, not-so-incidentally, the last album where Michael Stipe had hair. The band started out to make a harder rocking album than Out of Time, but instead made one that was held up by the ballads, and deep resonating songwriting. Their more hard rocking album would come next with Monster, but with Automatic for the People, R.E.M. was at their lyrical and musical peak, all stemming from what Peter Buck described as the dread coming with that sense of turning thirty. The past was gone. Buck said "The world that we'd been involved in had disappeared. The world of Hüsker Dü and The Replacements. All that had gone."

The album opens with the David Essex inspired Drive, a political anthem to get out and vote, and it closes with the experimental Find the River, where vocal and musical tracks were laid down without listening to the other band members. Between these two unique and quite disparate tracks are harder songs such as The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight (the B-side of the single was the band's version of The Tokens classic, The Lion Sleeps Tonight) and Ignoreland (as is the case in many an R.E.M. song, this is a political song, blasting the Reagen/Bush era); the melancholy moodiness of Star Me Kitten (one of favourite R.E.M. songs); the album's biggest hit, Everybody Hurts (a song written primarily by drummer Bill Berry, and whose video was inspired by Fellini's 8 1/2 - and this track was covered by everyone from Patti Smith to Joe Cocker to Annie Lennox, Alicia Keys, Bonnie Tyler, and even the Meat Puppets); the haunting Nightswimming (just Stipe's voice, Mike Mills on piano, oboe by Deborah Workman, and a string arrangement by former Zeppelin bassist, John Paul Jones); and the toe-tapper, Man on the Moon, a song based on the life of the late Andy Kaufman (though I like to believe Andy's still alive somewhere out there). A great album indeed - and it's just not me that believes it the band's best album, as most music critics do as well, as do both Peter Buck and Mike Mills. So, to all those R.E.M. naysayers out there (and you know who you are...especially you Max), I say bah to you all.


  1. Great choice. I love this album. You know what I hate, though? Those damn R.E.M. haters you mention. I have many a friend and acquaintance who will snark at me for listening to R.E.M. They're a bunch of damn fools, if you ask me.