Sweetness Followed: 15 Years After Automatic

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?