The following essay was written for Stereogum by Matthew Perpetua, founder of Fluxblog and more recently Pop Songs 07, for which the goal is to “write about every R.E.M. song, eventually.” Not surprisingly, it’s an illuminating read for any music fan. We invited Matthew to put R.E.M.’s seminal ’92 LP in perspective as we finalized our Drive XV tribute…

By Matthew Perpetua, September 2007
Even though we know that Automatic For The People came out fifteen years ago, and we can clearly recall purchasing the neon yellow cassette back in the fall of 1992, it’s increasingly difficult to hear the album without imagining that its songs have somehow always existed in the world. Unlike most other celebrated, canonized records from the early ’90s, R.E.M.’s eighth album stands separate from the prevailing cultural trends of the era. Whereas most other rock bands at the time either embraced the aggressive, self-destructive angst of grunge or the brainy, aloof irony of indie rock, the Athens quartet presented something far more singular and timeless in the form of a tightly composed, occasionally baroque song cycle obsessed with mortality and the passage of time.

This is not to say that Automatic For The People is a relentless downer. Despite its morbid themes, Automatic isn?t so much a record about death as it is a work of art that acknowledges the fleeting nature of life, and so many of its songs, most notably the hits “Man on the Moon” and “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” revel in the simple joy of being alive. On the opposite extreme, “Drive,” “Monty Got A Raw Deal,” and “Sweetness Follows” are stark and somber pieces that express the hollowness of grief and the subtle drag of existential dread with stunning accuracy and clarity. The rest of the songs fall someplace in between — the sentimental reminiscence of “Nightswimming”; the grim depiction of a bitter break-up in “Star Me Kitten”; the romantic wanderlust of “Find The River” — and taken as a whole, the record comes across like a panoramic view of life.

Needless to say, Automatic For The People has had a profound impact on its audience, particularly those who first heard the record at a young and impressionable age. Of the artists featured on Drive XV, a majority are young enough that their earliest exposure to the songs came during their adolescence, which may help to explain why so many of them opted to record a cover of “Everybody Hurts,” a tune that may well be the single most sympathetic and compassionate song about teenage depression of all time.

Somewhat ironically, the version of “Everybody Hurts” that appears on the proper Drive XV tracklist is by Meat Puppets, the only band featured on the compilation who qualify as contemporaries of R.E.M. The stoner rock trio’s take on the song is surprisingly faithful to the album arrangement, but its characteristic lushness is replaced by a charmingly lo-fi karaoke-style track, and Michael Stipe’s vocal part is split into a plaintive, slightly over-the-top duet. Similarly, Sara Quin and Kaki King’s collaboration on “Sweetness Follows” is very true to the tone and style of the studio recording, but places a far greater emphasis on its haunting, droning feedback. Without any dramatic alterations to the song, the Veils transformed “Drive” from a grim late fall dirge into a languorous, sultry ballad that falls halfway between George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” — both of which, incidentally, have been covered by R.E.M. themselves on fan club singles!

At the time R.E.M. wrote and recorded Automatic For The People, the band had no intention to tour for the album, thus freeing the group up to craft material that it would not need to learn how to play live, and so a solid fourth of the songs on the record have never been performed in concert. Unsurprisingly, these are the cuts that underwent the most dramatic re-imaginings on Drive XV. Rogue Wave totally reinvent “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” by eliminating its perky vibe and elegant John Paul Jones string arrangement in favor of something far more ghostly and ethereal. The Forms reduce the thick layers of overdubbed guitars in “Ignoreland” to a lean, bass-heavy garage rock number that recalls the bone-crushing minimalism of Death From Above 1979 without sacrificing Stipe’s sharp vocal melody. The Danish indie pop band Figurines offer the most radical interpretation on the compilation — their version of “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” isn’t an instrumental at all!

In most cases, the covers aim to capture the raw essence of the composition, but two of the most remarkable and revelatory selections in the set build elaborate, sleek new arrangements for old fan favorites. Blitzen Trapper’s “Star Me Kitten” gives the song a slightly disorienting cosmic funk make-over that plays up its spacey vibe and places a stronger emphasis on a melody that was much more subdued in R.E.M.’s version. Dr. Dog’s brilliant take on “Find The River” highlights the song’s roots in AM radio balladry with a smooth, suave organ groove and an alternate harmony that nearly rivals the hot-and-cold contrasting parts performed by Berry and Mills on the original.

Whether the artists messed about with the songs or played them straight, every track on Drive XV is guided by a reverence for the source material, and for the astonishing craft of Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe. Everyone who contributed to the compilation was certainly brave to take on some of the most beloved songs in history, but it’s hardly a surprise that each of them pulled off their respective tracks so well — with material this strong and timeless, how could they possibly go wrong?

 
Comments (62)
  1. Rich  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    Great essay Matt. I’m listening to the tracks now.

  2. Phenomenal. I enjoyed OKX, but this is infinitely classier. That Wrens’ ‘Nightswimming’ is gorgeous. Andbody here that’s stil complaining about ‘Gum going corporate, just look above. Not the worst thing.

  3. steve  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    Bravo to all of those involved with this project. It’s special things like this that bring me back day after day. I can’t wait to open up the zip file and dig in.

  4. Every time I start to wander away from Stereogum . . . this is amazing, and I agree, better even than OKX.

  5. jennifer  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    1992…wow, that makes me feel O-L-D. great idea, great job.

  6. Evan  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    The Wrens doing Night Swimming is all I need. Good god. How wonderful.

  7. fenwick  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    Automatic for the People was the 3rd CD I bought ever…right after Harry Connick Jr’s X and 10K Maniacs Our Time in Eden – a billion years ago! I shelved it for the last decade, but this has brought back so many memories, I’m looking forward to digging it out.

    Thanks, guys!

  8. amazing how many feelings i have wrapped up in this album without really recognizing them.

    thank you, stereogum… keep bringing the heat!

  9. aidan  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    …an essay from the hate pit…

  10. S. Jerusalem  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    Thanks, guys and gals at Stereogum. This was exactly what I needed after my rather shitty day. I promise I won’t bad mouth you anymore.

  11. Colin  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    This is utterly amazing.

  12. dbot  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    nice transmetropolitan shout

  13. I just put Automatic For The People in my car on Monday, this is awesome!

    Thanks!

  14. Jdies  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    Very well done – AFTP one of my favorite albums of all time, and this tribute is exceptional. OKX was great, this is even better.

  15. jmm  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    wow. i love the wrens, but their version of “nightswimming” is rly rly bad.

  16. Apexa  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    Automatic is one of the few albums that I can say without a doubt is flawless & perfect. So excited to listen to this & extra bonus: the Veils are the first track. Thank you!

  17. Tom Coe  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    Horrible.

  18. Jonathan  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    Wow, you are jsut going through my favorite albums (Ok Computer and Automatic?) this is really terrific. Happy 15th aniversary R.E.M. (it was released on the best day ever)

  19. seth  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    wow, i can’t wait to listen to this. easily my favourite rem album. thanks so much, stereogum!!

  20. Thanks a lot for all the hard work you guys put into this!

  21. bly  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2007 0

    do we have to wait until 2015 for you to do this with come on feel the illinoise?

  22. omg  |   Posted on Oct 3rd, 2007 0

    Thank you so much. I had never listened to this album until today. This is amazing. I can’t express my gratitude more than that. Nightswimming is an absolutely breathtaking song.

  23. alicia  |   Posted on Oct 3rd, 2007 0

    an exceptionally well done tribute….thanks stereogum for this remarkable project and all the hard work.

  24. This will be the first version of this album I have where the track “Drive” doesn’t skip horribly! Looking forward to this for sure.

  25. Also, can’t wait to hear The Narrator track, personally.

  26. Ben  |   Posted on Oct 3rd, 2007 0

    This is a really cool project. Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but why 192kbps (+ one track at 160kbps)? Why not go an extra step and make them VBR (or even make them available in some lossless format as well)?

    Presumably this is the only way these recordings will ever be available, right? Or maybe you can do 3 more of these and put out a massive box set.
    Anyway, thanks – don’t get wrong, it’s cool – I just wish the tracks were the best possible quality.

  27. @ Ben

    Many of the songs were delivered to us sort of haphazardly via MP3 in order to meet deadlines for mixing. (Wrens came in at the 11th hour which is why we didn’t have time to give it the consistent bitrate.) Lossless wasn’t practical for various reasons, but certainly a great idea to consider next time! Hope you enjoyed otherwise.

  28. amy  |   Posted on Oct 3rd, 2007 0

    Thanks! I love R.E.M. and covers, too.

    Sidenote: my local paper interviews 2 people about their interests every week, and one of the questions is “if you were in hell, what song would be playing over and over?”

    BOTH people interviewed said “something by R.E.M.”!! And their “favorite music?” – one was Kenny Chesney and I forget the other one.

    Shame! Typical of my city, though. I should move.

  29. jeff  |   Posted on Oct 3rd, 2007 0

    any possibility that y’all could start now and do this for “69 love songs?” 10-year anniversary is sept. 7. go!

  30. Matt W  |   Posted on Oct 3rd, 2007 0

    re: everybody hurts. I like the meat puppets version. Why a massacre?

  31. Paul Ramon  |   Posted on Oct 3rd, 2007 0

    The album blows to begin with and without exception these covers of course all blow as well. On the plus side, you guys are really turning out to be a slightly better rollingstone.com these days, so congrats on that.

  32. I love you stereogum! I know it’s totally cliche, but this album was very important to me in high school. It helped defined me, whether or not that’s for the best. And it’s one of the very few albums I re-bought on CD. I think I even still have the cassette.

    And thank you for not including any of that stupid Dashboard Confessional’s covers from this album that aired on VH1 a couple years ago.

  33. The Other Matthew  |   Posted on Oct 3rd, 2007 0

    I like the new page format for the tribute. I don’t like downloading the tracks for these things, since covers rarely ever “work,” but the flash players make it beautifully easy to still give them a listen without cluttering my computer. Kudos.

  34. Hey everyone — we’ve now added lyrics to each track page. Not that you couldn’t have Googled ‘em, but these are official from R.E.M.’s camp. Happy reading while listening.

  35. I love Sara on “Sweetness Follows” Im also very addicted to Tegan & Sara. I’ve heard the original and they did an awesome job. :)

  36. Gale  |   Posted on Oct 4th, 2007 0

    Thanks, that’s pretty much made my day listening to these songs.

  37. Rad, rad, rad!

    Thank you. These are great.

    Maybe it’s too pop or bvious or whatever, but I would still have liked to see Losing my Religion.

  38. Liz  |   Posted on Oct 4th, 2007 0

    I like it because they’re REM songs, however these versions pale in comparison.
    I like most of these artists as well Sara Quinn, Dr. Dog, The Wrens, The whole lot actually, but no one does REM like REM. Just my honest opinion.

  39. seth  |   Posted on Oct 4th, 2007 0

    ^^I don’t think it was ‘Losing My Religion’s level of pop or obviousness that kept it off the tribute, but more the simple fact that it isn’t from Automatic For The People.

  40. Ihopeyoudidntpaythebandstorecordthisshite  |   Posted on Oct 4th, 2007 0

    These covers are horrible. They lack any form of passion or spirit. Completely disposible. Just cuz you think you’re “indie” doesn’t mean you’re any good. Don’t bother downloading this unless you want to hear the difference between a successful band and a bunch of future substitute middle school teachers.

  41. I agree with some of the commenters here. These covers are awful.

  42. @ Ihopeyoudidntpay….

    I’m a substitute high school teacher and I resent even being peripherally connected with these boring covers.

    I love The Wrens but wtf did they do to Nightswimming?

  43. drewo  |   Posted on Oct 5th, 2007 0

    Great compilation Stereogum. I’m glad you picked the songs/artists that stretched the definition of “covers” a bit. Thanks for thinking outside the envelope with this collection.

  44. bubbleboy  |   Posted on Oct 6th, 2007 0

    That’s it. Dr. Dog is my new favorite band. Love the cover. Love their albums.

  45. Jodi  |   Posted on Oct 7th, 2007 0

    A good, if misty-eyed, essay on a brilliant album sullied now by these mostly awful cover attempts (Sara Quin and Kaki King’s collaboration on “Sweetness Follows” is a still-sometimes-flat exception, along with “Drive”, and Dr. Dog’s still-sometimes-sketchy version of “Find the River”; ?New Orleans Instrumental No. 1? only worked because there is little room to move in it).

    I personally think it’s mostly an embarrassment, and, no, I didn’t want straight-laced covers, but it would have been nice to have used artists who could sing the actual songs. Particularly disappointing were “Nightswimming” and “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” ? truly awful butchering going on there. This is no tribute ? these songs are ripe for great cover versions. Apparently some groups even forgot that atmosphere was a factor in the album?s success. It angers me because the covers now become, by association, part of the original?s fabric and legacy, and there sounds like there is so little effort and respect here.

    Whilst being appreciative of the effort going behind the actual assembly and upload by the site, this shouldn’t preclude criticism – just a note for the fanboys of the various artists gathered who took a great opportunity and blew it.

    ^Jodi

  46. jms  |   Posted on Oct 7th, 2007 0

    Jodi-

    Having contributed, I agree that this was a great opportunity to participate in; however, other factors sort of have their way in things like this. For instance, most of these bands, including my own, were quite busy this summer and, as much as I would have loved to have spent a month or so practicing the song & working out interesting arrangements that would’ve remained faithful to the original, the song remained the same: the man held us back. Having to work as much as possible in between short stays at home & month-long jaunts around the country earning less than $100 a night, makes it hard to get together more than once a week…and then there are friends, family, & pets. As a result, we spent about $25 (beer, whiskey) recording our cover over 2 days in our practice space pretty late at night. Not the greatest enviornment considering the popularity of tuning everything you own down to B & leting it ring out for 25 minutes to an hour. I’m happy with the way things came out for us. I mean, of course I would have loved to take what we came up with into Electric Lady Studios with Phil Spector, or whatever, but since everything done here was on the artist’s dime & time, we took our cash & paid at the pump.

  47. the best one here is ignorland….it rocks…fun

  48. Mrs. Featherbottom  |   Posted on Oct 10th, 2007 0

    Nice to see that Shitgum is shameless as ever. Just can’t help but associate your deplorable name with another great record, can ya?

  49. mrs. insultcomic  |   Posted on Oct 10th, 2007 0

    featherbottom=buRn!!

  50. Christian Niemeyer  |   Posted on Oct 13th, 2007 0

    Hi there!

    Big Thank You for this great compilation, absolutely love it. No cheap covers, all songs are great, can listen to them on and on.

    One question: Where’s track No 13? In my playlist and in the mp3 tags I see that there is No 13 missing.

    However thanks a lot, great work!! :-)))
    regards,
    chris

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