Music

R.E.M.: Automatic For the People (25th Anniversary Special Edition)

Photo: Anton Corbijn (Courtesy of Concord Music Group)

Every streetlight a reminder: a quarter-century after its initial release, R.E.M.'s crowning achievement is available as a deluxe set.

The year was 1992, and R.E.M. were on a roll. Each of their previous three albums brought them to new levels of commercial success. After a handful of years as college radio critical darlings, their 1987 album Document yielded "The One I Love", their first single to crack the U.S. top ten pop charts. In 1988, Green became their major label debut. Out of Time, from 1991, contained the single "Losing My Religion", which made them (somewhat reluctant) music video stars. At this point drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and vocalist Michael Stipe could essentially write their own ticket.


R.E.M.

Automatic For the People (25th Anniversary Special Edition)

(Craft Recordings)

Release Date: 10 Nov 2017

Automatic For the People was, not surprisingly, another huge commercial success, but its artistic merits are difficult to pin down. It's an astonishingly good record, and many critics and fans feel it's their crowning achievement, but what is it that makes it so great? A 25th-anniversary deluxe edition, released this month, goes a long way in helping to interpret the album's greatness.

Originally planned as a heavier "rock" album in the wake of Out of Time's somewhat gentler sound, this approach was soon abandoned as demo tracks began to come together and Stipe's lyrics took shape. The result was a collection – recorded with longtime producer Scott Litt in Upstate New York, Miami, Seattle, New Orleans and New York City – that gathers the band's greatest strengths into a combination as yet untested by the celebrated quartet. There's a whole heap of acoustic instrumentation (including lots of organ and piano), but a few rockers come out of the woodwork as well. Stipe's lyrics are still as puzzling as ever, but the mumbling singing style he'd been known for in the band's earlier days is all but gone, allowing fans to hear his unique, bracing voice clear and unfettered.

The band also dove headfirst into gorgeous, layered orchestrations, hiring Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones to do the arranging honors. This decision – possibly one of the smartest ones made during the making of the album – results in a striking new phase in the band's evolution. Automatic for the People's opening track – the stark, minor-key masterpiece "Drive" – mixes gloomy acoustic guitars with Jones' expressive strings, while the nursery rhyme style of the lyrics ("Hey, kids / Shake a leg / Maybe you're crazy in the head") provide an unsettling counterpoint. It's an unusual approach for R.E.M. to open an album with such a low-key downer, seeing as how their last several albums have all kicked off with more friendly, upbeat tracks (it's also interesting to note that this is their first album since 1986 to not open with a song that has the word "song" in the title – "Radio Song", "Pop Song '89", "Finest Worksong", but I digress).

The more "rocking" songs on Automatic for the People are few and far between but work well within the context of the album and are nice palette cleansers between the album's moodier tracks. "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" gallops along like the cousin of "Shiny Happy People" but with a bit more structure and more of an idiosyncratic edge. The full-on assault of "Ignoreland" – sounding not unlike the potent activism of Green – marries an aggressive, arena-style sound with Stipe's venting anti-Reagan/Bush lyrics, which pull no punches: "These bastards stole their power from the victims of the Us-V-Them years / Wrecking all things virtuous and true" is the song's first line, and it gets even angrier from there.

Despite the welcome presence of "Ignoreland", Automatic For the People isn't much of a political album. Stipe's lyrics focus primarily on areas of personal relationships and general reflection, and the instrumentation helps buttress these topics. One of the album's best-known songs (although not its highest-charting single), "Everybody Hurts" is a gospel-flavored ballad, simply executed with electric piano out in front of the full band (along with Jones' ever-present stings) and an optimistic outlook. "Everybody Hurts / Sometimes," Stipe implores. "So hold on." While the lyrics may initially come off as hackneyed and cloying, their simplicity, paired with the music's soulful, emotional heft, pack a simple, graceful punch.

R.E.M. seemed perfectly happy to step out of their musical comfort zone on many of the album's tracks, whether it's in the form of "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1", an obvious demo track that crept into the album's final track sequence, or the meditative gloom of "Sweetness Follows", which features droning cellos, bright organ chords, and the atonal buzz of electric guitar distortion. "Readying to bury your father and your mother," Stipe sings, "What did you think when you lost another?" But like "Everybody Hurts," the sadness is tempered by the simple, hopeful chorus: "Oh, sweetness follows."

Unlike most albums – by R.E.M. or anyone, really – the more downbeat songs on Automatic For the People tend to be the better-known ones. "Man on the Moon" – a loping country/folk homage to the late comedian Andy Kaufman – was one of the album's singles, and its popularity soared past its initial radio airplay to become a partial inspiration for Milos Forman's Oscar-nominated Kaufman biopic of the same name. Likewise, "Nightswimming" – while not an enormous hit single by any stretch – has gone on to become one of the band's more beloved ballads, and the beauty of its lyrics and arrangement make it an easy song to fall in love with. Stipe's impeccable vocal performance and Mills' piano (recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami using the same piano "Layla" was recorded on – a little something for you trivia nerds) are complemented by a heavenly orchestral arrangement. It's definitely not "Radio Free Europe". Rather, it's the sound of a band evolving beyond its wildest dreams.

Due to the high quality of the initial album and its importance within R.E.M.'s discography, a 25th-anniversary single disc reissue would be adequate and perfectly excusable, but a number of additional extra recordings have been assembled for this edition, making it a true "deluxe" edition. The second disc is a live recording from the legendary 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, an old local stomping ground of the band's early days, recorded November 19, 1992, about six weeks after the release of Automatic For the People. The band seem relaxed and confident, reveling not only in the adulation of the small town college crowd but energized by the new songs (which they mix in with plenty of older material). Despite the relatively inferior quasi-funk version of "Drive" (somewhat dulling the gothic vibe of the studio version), most of the songs stay close to their original arrangements. Plenty of the singles are included ("Losing My Religion", "Fall on Me", "Finest Worksong") and blend in nicely with covers they've been known to perform (the Troggs' "Love Is All Around", featuring Mills' gentle, soothing lead vocal, and a rousing cover of Iggy Pop's "Funtime"). It's a winning set that sounds surprisingly clear and crisp for a live recording.

Disc Three is meant for Automatic diehards, but fans of all stripes will find plenty to enjoy. Demo recordings show the songs in various forms of completion. An acoustic version of "Drive" is basically complete, albeit without the string arrangement. A rough take of "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" (complete with some charming off-key vocals from Stipe) is initially titled "Wake Her Up." Lots of early instrumental versions of songs that would eventually make the final cut are here under different working titles, like "C to D Slide 13" ("Man on the Moon"), "Howler Monkey" ("Ignoreland") and "10K Minimal" ("Find the River"). There's also a couple of unreleased tracks that were eventually discarded for whatever reason: "Mike's Pop Song" is fairly self-explanatory, a wistful, up-tempo earworm that sounds like the Posies covering an AM radio pop gem from the '70s. "Devil Rides Backwards" includes plenty of typical Automatic for the People atmosphere: gentle acoustic guitar fingerpicking, piano chords, and organ stabs backing Stipe's vocals, which are mostly "la la la" vocalizing and an occasional line or two ("Devil rides backwards on a mule named maybe / Down the road of indecision"). It's a lovely, intimate peek at what could have been a slightly beefier final track list.

The fourth and final disc in the deluxe edition is a Blu-Ray that includes the full album remixed in Dolby Atmos (which, according to the press release, is technology that "delivers a leap forward from surround sound with expansive, flowing audio that immerses the listener far beyond what stereo can offer"). There's also a final unreleased track, "Photograph," which features additional vocals by Natalie Merchant. It's another fine recording that could have lived comfortably with the rest of the original track list.

Looking back on the album a quarter-century later, Buck admits he was always surprised by the album's success. "I didn't expect it to be a huge hit," he says. "It's a strong record, but I'm a little confused with what we came up with." Indeed, Automatic for the People is a bit baffling in that it doesn't rely on any of the current sonic trends of the time. It possesses a magical, wholly independent aura. This is an album of elegant simplicity, full of grand, sweeping gestures. There would be much more to come, but this was their apex.

9


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Music

Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.

Music

Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".

Music

Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.

Music

Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."

Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.