Automatic for the People – R.E.M.

Automatic for the People

R.E.M

1992

Warner Bros.

 

I will be the first to admit that I don’t know much about R.E.M.  They became popular around the same time I was born, and in the years that I’ve turned to indie music, they have always been (probably wrongfully) neglected.  I do posses the normal knowledge of them: they started out as a college-friendly band in the 80’s, moved to become extremely successful in the early 90’s, then couldn’t write a decent song, until Accelerate (and this can be disputed).  I’ve always had respect for the band from the handful of songs that I do know, but for some inescapable reason I always overlook the band.

Automatic for the People was released during that middle period of the early 90’s where they became insanely popular, and (for some strange reason), this is an album of mainly acoustic mid-tempo songs.  Starting to listen to the record, I was expecting songs similar to “It’s the End of the World” or “Stand”.  The nearest this album comes to that is “Man on the Moon”, probably the best song on here.  That’s not to say the rest of the songs aren’t good, it’s just… they’re not what I was hoping for. 

“Drive” is the first song on Automatic, and, well, I’m confused.  I’m not sure why they’d have this as the first song.  It’s slow, and mainly acoustic.  The vocals have an echo tacked on to them, giving an ethereal effect to the song.  The drums only enter every once in a while, mainly being focused on the background, without adding much to the song.  An electric guitar enters halfway through, followed by strings, which finally give “Drive” a kick it desperately needed.  But it doesn’t last for long, as the song always comes back around to the acoustic sound.  It would be an acceptable, probably stand-out track anywhere else on the album, but being the first track, it fails at engaging the listener.  It’s too detached to do so. 

“Try Not to Breathe” enters with a syncopated rhythm, and then into another mostly acoustic number.  The melody doesn’t work, the electric guitar is only background noise, and the only redeeming quality is with the background vocals.  They are reminiscent to some of the earlier songs, half-mirroring the lead vocals.  Again, the song fails to captivate the audience, being destined for a decent filler song

For the third song,“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”, R.E.M finally appear to putting some effort forth.  In the intro, Michael Stipe hums (or rather scats) certain parts of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” mimicking it.  And while the following verses aren’t particulary that memorable, the chorus makes up for that.  Here, Stipe utters more words than he can fit into the line (“Call me when you try to wake her up”) resulting in an appealing musicality.

“Everybody Hurts” is what I consider to be the thesis for Automatic.  It is yet another ballad, but this one contains, so far, the best composition.  Stipe’s vocals sound really enthused, and the lyrics seek to comfort.  The ringing arpeggios of the guitars are consistent through the song, not minding supporting the song.  Then the distortion comes in, and, in true R.E.M. form, they allow it to just ring out, without doing anything sophisticated.  Every little touch in “Everybody Hurts” allows for the mood to transfer effortlessly.

“New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” should not even be on this album.  It is an exhausting song that goes nowhere.  I mean, really, why?

“Sweetness Follows” takes all of the tricks from “Drive”, but creates a completely different song.  The echo aspect is again heard on this track, but not nearly as rampant.  However, what works so well is the combination of the keyboards and the slight distortion in the background.  The guitar solo, doesn’t even seem to be a guitar solo; rather, it sits back with only a few notes, adding to the overall atmosphere.  They should’ve opened with this song more so than with “Drive”, for this is just a better crafted track.

There are three tracks on the album which don’t stray from the style too much:  “Monty Got a Raw Deal”, “Star Me Kitten”, and “Find the River”.  The first is the best, by far, but all three refuse to develop the sound, and just wind up being disregarded.

That leaves three tracks left, and I’ll start with “Nightswimming”.  The main focus of this is the jangling piano (a brief difference in the composition of the overall album).  This allows for something most of the other songs missed: a musical advancement.  With the piano playing restlessly, Stipe’s vocals keep the song sounding like it belongs on the album (Despite that statement, I mean it as a positive), as does the lucid topic of the lyrics.

Directly beforehand is R.E.M.’s tribute to Andy Kaufman, notable comedian from the show Taxi,and topic of the Jim Carrey movie of this song’s same name, “Man on the Moon”.  Making references to Kaufman’s life, the song is a delicate accolade to him.  This is perhaps the most melodic song on Automatickeeping the attention of the listener for the whole song.  The lyrics (especially Stipe’s impersonation of Kaufman’s impersonation of Elvis), the music (especially the instrumental break), and the arrangement (especially when the band backs out and lets only an acoustic guitar ring out) all create an interesting song, on a skewed topic.  It’s another risk that pays off on this album.

Lastly (and even earlier on the record), is “Ignoreland”.  The heaviest tune on here takes itself seriously, for good reason.  It’s a political statement (“These bastards stole their power from the victims of the Us” and “Super US citizen, super achiever, Mega ultra power doesn’t relax.”), referring to Ronald Reagan’s presidency.  In fact, being the most upbeat song on the album with its politically charged lyrics, “Ignoreland” is perhaps the best song on the album (if not a close second to “Man on the Moon”).

In hindsight, this review seems a little scathing.  Let me be clear, Automatic for the People is not a bad album.  At all.  It is a pretty good album, with interesting songs, but it lacks a certain pull.  The songs seem content with being just what they are, without barely any maturation.

When the album came out, it was critically acclaimed, reaching number two in the U.S. and number one in England.  There were six singles, and became one the best selling albums for R.E.M.  Is it just me?  Do I not get it?  Maybe I just don’t understand the album. Maybe i’m just dense.  Maybe it’s my fault.  And now my giant ego is wounded.  But, I could always listen to “Everybody Hurts”.  Ahhh… comfort.

Buy this Album

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