Automatic For the People Turns 20
[Download Drive XV, the Stereogum-curated tribute to Automatic For The People, featuring the Wrens, Shout Out Louds, Blitzen Trapper, and others.]
If you’ve got your copy of Automatic For The People, turn to the photo spread of R.E.M. on a Miami beach. Look at the picture of Michael Stipe, up to his armpits in the Atlantic. The picture itself — shot by Anton Corbijn — is a masterpiece: He’s framed right in the center with the peak of his backwards-cap-topped head forming another chop on the waveline. His eyes are closed, his mouth halfway open. He could be exhausted, he might be relaxed; either way, he looks like he could use the water.
R.E.M. was on a break of sorts at this stage: While still recording, they had effectively stopped touring a couple years prior to the Automatic sessions. No tour was mounted for the previous album, Out Of Time, their best-selling record, with the highest-charting single at that point (the deathless “Losing My Religion”). Peter Buck arrived at the 1992 Grammys wearing casino-themed pajamas, because — as he told Spin journalist Jim Greer — “[W]e’re not going to win any awards.” They won three.
Out Of Time was a bend in the river that had, to that point, borne rousing folk-rock made for nodding one’s head side to side and extracting whatever leftist meaning one wished. Buck’s mandolin, generally a coloring instrument, began to assert itself as a foundational element. Musically, R.E.M. was moving from kudzu to open country. Thematically, their strident political anthems (are there any other kind?) were losing ground to songs of an inward aim. (“Ignoreland” would be the sole political holdout on Automatic.)
Like Sherman’s army in reverse, the band plundered America for their the next disc. Intending to make a rock record, Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry convened in late 1991 for weeklong woodshedding sessions, cutting demos in an Athens studio. Buck told Greer that each man spent time on a secondary instrument; Berry laid off the drums, which likely ensured slower tempos. Stipe was given the results in January of the next year, and the entire band spent time recording in New Orleans, Miami, and Bearsville, NY.
Assuming your copy is still handy, take in that cover. It features a grayscale shot of a star-shaped Miami hotel sign, rendered in a brutalist manner (it looks a bit like a slender naval landmine, actually, or a medieval morning star). The back cover — designed, like the rest of the album, by Stipe and longtime graphic collaborator Chris Bilheimer — overlays the song titles in a stark marquee style along a lamplit building. Then, of course, there’s the title, looming in that marquee font, a phrase practically Soviet in its drabness.
It’s been noted over and over that Automatic For The People has an overarching concern with mortality. While Stipe has cautioned in interviews that it’s important not to conflate mortality with death, it’s also good to remember that the concept of mortality serves a function for life. Knowing the fact of your end, you can (depending on the stage or inclination) consider what brought you to this point, think about your legacy, or make peace with yourself and others. And, of course, you can just smile. Warner Bros. was four years away from offering the band that absurd windfall of legend, but in 11 years, the band had gone from a more pastoral version of the Embarrassment to a major-label band able to command multiple-night stands in arenas worldwide. R.E.M. held up the likes of the Minutemen and the Replacements as peers; both bands served as opening acts for R.E.M., riffing and bashing for throngs of puzzled “Radio Free Europe” fans.
As the opener, “Drive” gives the packaging a sonic incarnation. By far the gloomiest-sounding song in their catalog to that point, it sure suggests a haunting. With the sardonicism of ’80s Neil Young, and the lyrics and vocal echo of David Essex’s oddball 1973 hit “Rock On” (with a dip into the exhortation of “Stop It” by Athens scenemates Pylon), it would seem to be a generational line in the sand, a last warning before the open highway. The band’s post-punk pedigree offers an alternate reading: firsthand experience of the fear in freedom. Once we pass through John Paul Jones’ orchestral thicket, a wistful tone can be detected in Stipe’s voice, as if remembering the first time he realized there was nobody to tell him what to do.
There’s no getting around the minor key, however, and “Monty Got a Raw Deal” — the first of two celebrity portraits on Automatic — puts boundaries to freedom. “Virtue isn’t everything,” Stipe intones, “so don’t waste time.” He’s addressing Montgromery Clift, the incendiary Golden Age actor who kept a circumscribed private life. Stipe smartly leverages the awkward line “the movies had that movie thing” with “nonsense has a welcome ring”: “nonsense” is the song’s lyrical motif, a line connecting the actor’s unending show with that of an Important Rock Band. Allegedly composed on a bouzouki in a New Orleans hotel room with a couple fucking one room over, it’s a crawling, dread acoustic dirge with long-sighing accordion. “You don’t owe me anything / You don’t want no sympathy,” the song acknowledges, a couplet that might as well be self-directed.
The second celebrity song is, of course, “Man On The Moon,” which has taken on a second life as the title of Miloš Forman’s 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic. It’s the quintessential R.E.M. song, at turns enigmatic and playful. Buck brushes the edges with gentle mandolin work, pairing guitar lines that together strain and leap on the refrain like yoked Tarpans. Stipe’s never sounded more affecting — which is saying a lot, considering his career throughline of empathetic vocals within an endearingly limited tenor — stringing out extra syllables in “be-lie-e-eve,” because after all, doesn’t it take more than a mustard seed’s worth of faith to imagine a man on the moon? Mills’s indelible loping bassline leads this heavenly childhood inventory of board games, wrestlers and elementary history. Like “Monty,” it’s a portrait (albeit more roundabout) of a man consumed by craft until the end.
When R.E.M. turns to crafting a universal portrait, though, the results are mixed. “Try Not To Breathe” prefigures Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town“; both are earnestly strummed, folksy vignettes of people at the end of life, and in both, the understanding strains to make itself understood. Buck does unspool some lovely clarion pings, Berry taps out waltz time with nagging sixtenths, and the rumbling feedback accompanying Stipe’s wordless lowing on the bridge smudges the saintliness somewhat. Much more successful is “Sweetness Follows,” a portrait of loss which converts the simple (chiefly, the “mother”/”brother”/”other” rhyme scheme) into the elemental. Elegaic organ, deep-sawing cello, and crackling clouds of feedback become a mournful juggernaut, an update of the Velvet Undergound’s foundational somber drone. Stipe sketches the kind of graveside exhortation people imagine giving but never do. “Live your life filled with joy and wonder,” the singer pleads, and as he sees his words fall to the earth, he rephrases in the next verse: “joy and wonder” becomes “joy and thunder.”
As I said earlier, though, life is not (or ought not be) just the realization of death. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” is a big B-12 injection, a blithe and bitchy attempt to manipulate the middleman. The organ fills the soundspace, and Stipe matches it swell for swell, keening at the top of his range. The text is concerned with phones, phone messages and crossed wires (as well as a shopping list that starts with black eyed peas and ends with Dr. Seuss and giggling). Midway through, Jones’s strings insinuate themselves into the mix, putting the icing on a generously self-aware tune. (At the beginning, Stipe lilts a variation on the Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” — a charming cover of which the band recorded and issued as a B-side around this time.) The song is slotted between “Try Not To Breathe” and “Everybody Hurts”; it’s certainly not a perfect transition, more like a well-placed joke during a consolation.
So yes: “Everybody Hurts.” Along with “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It,” it’s the layperson’s R.E.M. single. While it did scrape into the top 30, its renown is likely due to its music video, a subtitled traffic jam inspired by 8 ½ and directed by Jake Scott (son of Ridley). The video won four MTV Music Video Awards, an outcome that prompted Adam Yauch to storm the stage in his Nathaniel Hornblower guise, protesting on behalf of “Sabotage.” As for the song, it’s weighed by the same problem as “Try Not To Breathe,” that of too-carefully calibrated concern. “Everybody Hurts” bears more than a passing resemblance to Phil Spector’s arrangement of “Unchained Melody” for the Righteous Brothers, down to the clockwork guitar line and orchestral build. On the bridge, however, Stipe lets loose with sloppy melodic lines, so when he pleads “don’t throw your hand,” he sounds just as close to the edge as his addressee. But the point is inclusion. He tips his hand at the beginning, winking that “it’s time to sing along.” The final minute sees Berry striking up the full kit along the ascending string figure. R.E.M. has won.
It’s not my intention to rag on R.E.M.’s more direct texts, but revisiting Automatic For The People, the sideways smile seems to catch me more than anything else. But then there’s “Nightswimming,” which could have been a killer closer for any of a thousand alt-rock hopefuls. It’s a sweet memory rubbed raw, built around Mills’s forceful, major-key piano progression, one that resists treacle at every turn. (In Johnny Black’s Reveal: The Story of R.E.M., Mills is quoted as saying he recorded on the same piano used by Jim Gordon on Derek And The Dominos’ “Layla.”) For his part, Stipe surges through his lines, grasping desperately for the next verse, as if worried the memory will evaporate unless spoken. He’s declared that the lyrics are more invention than remembrance, but the expertly deployed details (the photo on the dashboard, the fear of getting caught) stand in sharp contrast to the projected deathbed scenario of “Try Not To Breathe.”
I had forgotten that “Nightswimming” and “Find the River” combine to form an aquatic coda. Where “Drive” opened with a salvo directed at a younger generation, “Find The River” appears to be aimed at the band’s peers. On “Everybody Hurts,” the singer counseled a friend not to throw his hands. Here, he stands at the water’s edge, wanly noting that “there’s nothing left to throw.” The piano turns from a minor key on the verses to a sort of soul-gospel figure on the refrain, while Mills and Berry chip in backing vocals. Berry keeps to a low croon, Mills goes for abandon, and both men neatly sidestep any churchy sentiment, apropos for a song that sees Stipe fight his way back to an Eden of sense-loss. He catalogs the fragrant foliage he encounters (bayberry, bergamot, vetiver), and Berry’s poignant melodica line carries its own practically palpable sweetness.
Of the differences between singles and albums, perhaps the greatest is this: the right single takes you to another time, while the right album reminds you how much time has passed. Immersed in rock history (the band famously traces its origins to a Stipe-Buck meeting in an Athens record store), R.E.M. were canny craftsmen of both. Of the post-hardcore boom, no band played the system better, reaping fortune and freedom in equal measure. Automatic For The People was, perhaps, a confounding move on paper: a deeply meditative follow-up to an album that found room for KRS-One, Kate Pierson, and massively popular treacle (“Shiny Happy People,” natch). 1994’s Monster would be the rock album R.E.M. had intended to make; they served themselves from their bottomless well of compassion, and for their trouble, they got mistaken for honest-to-God rock stars for a time. But there was no such problem on Automatic For The People; R.E.M. stepped boldly into the ocean, and it was a wondrous thing to witness.