Counterbalance No. 53: R.E.M.’s ‘Automatic for the People’

Automatic for the People
Warner Bros.

Klinger: R.E.M.’s recent split has generated a lot of discussion and reminiscences, so the appearance of Automatic for the People on the Great List is coming along at the right time. Even so, I find this album’s placement a little odd. But in order to explain, I’m afraid I’m going to have to play one of the few cool cards I have in my deck: I was a pretty early adopter of R.E.M. When I was 14 or 15, I managed to pull away from my British Invasion fetish long enough to pay attention to what was actually happening during my own decade, and as a result I bought Murmur not too awfully long after it came out. Of course I heard echoes of earlier music in their sound, and that was likely a big part of their appeal. Plus, for a high school kid who was eager to get on with things, R.E.M. just sounded like college to me. It felt like a first step into a larger world.

I stayed in touch with them throughout the 1980s, and by the time I actually got to college in ’86, R.E.M. was indeed something of a lingua franca for the college-radio types that I found myself hanging around with. Not everyone was a fan, of course, but everyone seemed aware of their steady rise into major label standard bearers. As each album started to sound a little less jangly and Michael Stipe’s lyrics came to be more clearly enunciated (and as they became more popular in the mainstream), people’s concerns started to get louder. The singles got sillier (“Stand”, “Shiny Happy People”), too, and that didn’t help matters much. By the time Automatic for the People came out, I had pretty much moved on. I had nothing against R.E.M., but I also wasn’t buying their albums anymore. Even though I realize that I had lost touch with them at about the same that most people were picking up on them, I’m still a little surprised that this is the first R.E.M. album we’re covering for Counterbalance.

Mendelsohn: I would like to say I’m surprised as well, but I’m not. Not because I like R.E.M. and think Automatic for the People is a happy, shiny example of how an indie-label rock band can grow up and fulfill the long sought, oft-missed goal of true artistic achievement and commercial success. No, the truth is, I’m not surprised because I don’t care enough about R.E.M. to be surprised. Nothing against them. When this album hit, I was just getting into music and was looking the opposite way down the street of rock and roll. As a result, I missed the R.E.M. bus. I’m not sad about it. I had a nice walk, saw some interesting things—because apparently Rock and Roll Blvd. leads through some shady neighborhoods—and eventually I got to where I was going. But in the process, I never connected with this band. Although listening to this album now, everything seems so very familiar. But, from what I understand, half of this record received radio airplay and it seemed like every movie made in the mid-’90s was required to have “Everybody Hurts” on its soundtrack (usually during the inevitable scene where the protagonist cries).

So setting aside our surprise for minute . . . knowing what you know about R.E.M. and the Great List (and what I refuse to learn about either), does Automatic for the People make sense as this band’s first entry on the list or would you make an argument for one of their earlier records?

Klinger: To tell you the truth, I don’t think I would. As much as I love their earliest albums, I can see why critics would view this as R.E.M.’s promise coming into full fruition. “Everybody Hurts”, as difficult as it may have been for cynical members of Generation X to swallow whole, really was an affecting anthem, especially considering that it came from a group—and during a time—not known for its heartfelt anthems. In fact, I’d say that all of the singles and radio hits you alluded to hold up pretty well. Once I let my guard down and decided that I wasn’t going to worry about all the implications that this record held for the career of a band that I really admired, the more I came to think of it as a solid, and even canonical, record. It certainly helped shape the music of the rest of the decade—in fact, meld it with Nevermind, and you’ve got the sound of the so-called Alternative Nation pretty much encapsulated.

Mendelsohn: I was just thinking about that. Two of the biggest albums to come out of the early ’90s were Nirvana’s Nevermind and R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, and they make for such a weird juxtaposition especially when you start to think about the foundation they provided for the alternative rock movement and the amount of variety that flourished throughout the decade. Do you think Automatic for the People became so popular in response to Nevermind? A baroque pop yin to Kurt Cobain’s feedback fueled yang?

Klinger: That doesn’t seem likely to me, although it’s tempting to hold that dichotomy in mind when it comes to alt-ish (alt-y? altoid?) rock of the ’90s. R.E.M. had been a group on the grow all through the ’80s—every one of their LPs hit the Top 40 on the Billboard Album Charts, so it was just a matter of time before they went full-on mainstream.

But as I’m listening to Automatic for the People again, I have to say that if you’re going to go mainstream this is the way to do it. Even though Michael Stipe’s lyrics are more audible than on the old I.R.S. albums, they’re plenty weird enough to be striking. To think that there could be a hit single about the late comedian/mind-messer Andy Kaufman (and also name drops Mott the Hoople, Isaac Newton and Kaufman’s one-time co-conspirator Fred Blassie) is pretty impressive. And to do all that without getting silly (as we know they’ve been wont to do) is, to my way of thinking, what makes this album worthy of the pantheon.

Mendelsohn: R.E.M. is good at name dropping. Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs. Birthday party, cheesecake, blah, blah, blah.

I wish I liked R.E.M. more. But at the end of the day this album just makes me feel weird, washed over by the dull yellow and cool blue tones of nostalgia as the early ’90s come rushing back to me. Anyway, while I may never go willingly seek out an R.E.M. album, I can’t deny their talent. These guys put in the long hours, building a career on solid album after solid album, one hit at time–or in the case of Automatic for the People, six at a time–and all of it is incredibly well-constructed.

Klinger: You’re name-dropping “It’s the End of the World” from their earlier album Document, which does an absurd amount of referencing, but to my ears Automatic for the People seems to mark a point where R.E.M. are even more directly interfacing with the culture. All through the album there are allusions to other pop songs (“Rock On”, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) and pop culture icons (“Monty Got a Raw Deal”, which is supposedly about Montgomery Clift, but I prefer to believe it’s about Let’s Make a Deal host Monty Hall). Of course, by the end of the ’90s, constant pop culture signifiers were a seriously irritating cliché, but it seemed like a lot of fun in 1992.

But considering what a blockbuster album this was—and how indelible those hit singles are—I’m always taken a little aback by how restrained this album is musically. There are very few places where the band cuts loose (“Ignoreland”? Is that as close as it gets?), and lead-off track “Drive” is so subdued that I’m afraid it makes me less motivated to dig into the album. By the end though, I’m not complaining: Peter Buck’s arpeggiated style translates well into this more acoustic setting, and Mike Mills deserves some sort of major award for that stunning piano melody on “Nightswimming”. Is it possible that this album is just too darn pretty for you?

Mendelsohn: That might be the problem. I seem to have issues when albums start to push into the orchestral pop territory—especially when there isn’t a whole lot of rock behind it. I think that’s where I’m having difficulty. Song to song, this album is as solid as anything we’ve listened to so far but it is so subdued, so measured in its delivery and that will put me off almost every time. I would take silly, goofy R.E.M. over this any day, just because those songs have so much more energy. Is that wrong?

Klinger: No, it’s not wrong to prefer that peppier side of R.E.M. Even among their more restrained albums (of which this is certainly a prime example), I’m more of a Fables of the Reconstruction man myself—and I’ll be interested to see how Automatic for the People continues to fit in with their legacy now that they are no more. It is interesting that they’re being duly eulogized as alt-rock founding fathers after so many years of being more or less ignored by the mainstream press, but I guess it’s true that a tree is best measured when it’s down. And I think now we have a better opportunity to assess the arc of their career, from jangly ’80s upstarts to ’90s megastars, through their Horse Latitudes of the early ’00s and into that delightful resurgence they enjoyed right before they called it a day. Either way, I’m looking forward to further discussions in just a few short weeks. Curious timing, I can’t help thinking.