Halfway through listening to Automatic for the People for the first time, I decided that it was the best REM album ever. Halfway through listening to it for the second time, I decided that it was the best album ever. Twenty years later, I still haven’t changed my mind.
I love this album. It’s cool and collected, lyrical and beautiful. It begins and ends anthemically, but is full of humour in between It contains the song that, without doubt, will outlast any memories of the band, and also their greatest sing-along success, the indisputable concert-closer for the remainder of their career. Nor is it tied to its times, the way some albums are, or not to my ears at any rate. No matter how many hundreds of times I’ve played it, Automatic for the People still feels fresh to the ears even as it is intimately familiar.
Automatic was the eighth album of REM’s career, and their third since leaving their initial home on independent label IRS. Out of Time (1991) had made them world-wide stars, though it’s a much inferior record, surprisingly thin in its sound and, with the wonderful exception of Losing My Religion, not stocked with great songs. Given that Out of Time was largely dominated by an acoustic sound, in which Peter Buck’s mandolin was undeniably prominent, the band convened to record the follow-up with the intent of making a heavy rock album. Automatic was nothing like.
Instead, the album builds on the acoustic sound of its predecessor throughout, with a single exception in the album’s weakest track. The sound is composed and compact, acoustically “dry” and the band show a greater degree of tightness in their approach to each song. Even the most sparse arrangement sounds full, ironically so in the case of penultimate track Nightswimming, which largely depends on a solo piano, and which is actually an unused song from the Out of Time sessions!
Automatic opens with the first single taken from the album, a UK no 11, Drive. A slow-paced, stop-start chanted anthem, the song builds from a solo acoustic guitar to an anthemic orchestral sweep, underpinned by a lead electric guitar that surfs the rising sound, a form emphasised in the video that depicts Michael Stipe being carried across the shoulders of an infinite crowd, whilst adopting a crucifixion pose. It’s followed by Try Not to Breathe, an insistent song lit by a forceful performance by Stipe, although the song’s subject is death: Stipe tries to imagine being dead, drawn into a foetal position, unmoving. The suggestion is that this is voluntary inanition, a self-willed but not acted upon suicide, yet the song bursts with vitality, continually returning to the repeated backing phrase, You look and I’ll see. I want you to remember, Stipe responds.
The contrasts in this album are shown in The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight, third single (UK no 17). It’s co-credited to the writers of The Lion Sleeps Tonight in acknowledgement of the Wimoweh yodel Stipe sings over the introduction (the band casually cover the original song as one of the bonus tracks on the CD single). Suddenly, we’ve swung to the opposite extreme, a surreal story of shopping lists, sleeping snakes and a chorus insisting that Stipe is only trying to waken her. Mills and Berry repeat this back and Stipe insists that he can always sleep standing up.
After that, we move to Everybody Hurts. This was the fourth single off the album and, though the band reached higher chart positions before and after this, this was their biggest hit, spending a month in the top 10 and peaking for two weeks at no 7 – almost unique in a band whose singles usually entered high then dropped out of sight in the second week.
You know this song, and you will already have your own opinion about it, though I hope it’s not influenced by the charity cover version that was a no 1 UK hit. In its original form it’s simple and austere, led by a piano and guitar combination that provides a platform for one of Stipe’s most passionate vocals. Again, the theme is death, but having experienced the feeling of the same in Try Not to Breathe, Stipe’s concerns turn to the lonely and despairing, those who have come to the point where they are facing the thought of real and not pretended suicide. Hold on, Stipe says, with infinite simplicity. You are not alone. We are with you, we understand you and we will give you our support: please, just hold on. Though it’s not, to me, REM’s best song, it is the one that, when the band are nothing but a name more associated with dream-sleep, will still be played.
After the intensity of Everybody Hurts, we have a short interlude with New Orleans Instrumental No. 1, an electric piano slow rolling number, jazz-influenced and smoky (there is a No. 2 and an extended version on a couple of the later CD singles), and then the serious mood is reasserted as the first side of the album (imaginary at this point, but still a mental concept that prevailed in older listeners) ends with Sweetness Follows. Like Everybody Hurts, it’s slow and stirring, with a dark cello backing Stipe’s vocals. It’s a return to the sombreness, the association with death of Everybody Hurts as well, as Stipe gathers with his sisters and brothers to attend the burial of their parents, in sorrow and misery, yet the song is lit by a moment of hope as Stipe insists that sweetness follows: there is still life, there is still happiness beyond this.
(Mentally) flipping the album over, the notional side two starts with the two weakest songs on the album. Monty Had a Raw Deal echoes the album’s underlying theme as Stipe sympathises with the late actor Montgomery Clift, whose career was blighted in the Fifties, and who died early as a consequence. The song is a little bit stop-start, never quite gelling, though it is still superior to Ignoreland, the one track on the album for which REM plug in their guitars, only to produce an anonymous song, ostensibly about politics. It doesn’t fit on the album, and wouldn’t have made an impact on any of the band’s other releases.
Yet, in a strange way, this two song sag contributes to the tempo of the album as a whole. The intensity of ‘side 1’ is released, the listeners ear-palate is cleansed, and from here to the end, the album builds in strength.
First up is Star Me Kitten. The star does duty for the word fuck, which Stipe sings (there is a demo version on one of the later CD singles with a more or less spoken vocal from William Burroughs that is equally fascinating). In the fullness of its sound, Star Me Kitten owes an obvious debt to 10cc’s I’m Not In Love. Stipe’s vocals slide through an ethereal haze of sound and voice, the only clear point in a slow-moving song that drifts in a miasma of sexuality and a call to life. The album’s obsession with death and loss is pushed away as we run towards the end.
There was considerable debate over the running order of the album, and especially the placing of Man on the Moon (second single, UK no 18). Like The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight, it’s a jaunty, cheerful song, for all that it’s lyrics echo Monty Had a Raw Deal in centring a dead celebrity, this time comedian/actor Andy Kaufman. Man on the Moon would lend it’s title to a film biography of Kaufman, for which REM contributed to the soundtrack, but here, with its cheery name-dropping (Mott the Hoople, Mr Charles Darwin, Fred Blassey – who? – and of course the irrepressible Kaufman himself) and its irresistible chorus, it’s an explosion of life, and the song immediately replaced Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars) as the band’s closing number, the one the crowd wouldn’t leave before they heard it.
It would have made a fine album closer, but in the end the band went for the anthemic. First, however, is the Out of Time out-take, Nightswimming (an all but unnoticed fifth single, UK no 29). It’s a self-contained, private song, lost in its own past, a song about teenage days, and the pleasure of sneaking out to the local swimming hole at night. The song enfolds the listener in a private, almost secret world, known only to aficionados
Nightswimming begins with the sounds of tuning up, and is supported by cellos picking out the musical theme. These close to a distinct end, not a fade-out, which provides a brief moment of isolation before the closing track, Find The River (a sixth and ignored single, UK no 63). The album ends in in the infinite, the song soaring to the heights. Stipe’s river is metaphorical, the river to the ocean goes, weighed down by its undertow, life heading towards an end of merger in the great infinite. It’s a yearning, calling song, opening out the album in its closing minutes, topping a cycle of songs that began in darkness and end in the approach of light.
Still favourite after all these years. Unlike Out of Time, which is firmly fixed in its own era, Automatic for the People (the title comes from the slogan of an Athens, Georgia Diner!) is out(side) of time, in its own eternal bubble.
Automatic also came blessed with a very high standard of out-take songs, as the first four CD singles demonstrate. These were definitely great recording sessions and an extended mix album, on a tape or a home-burnt CD, would extend the running time to the best part of seventy-five minutes by including all these additional tracks. That’s how it’s organised on my mp3 player.
REM – Find The River – Unplugged – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M–XIve1lxY