Photo: Anton Corbijn (Courtesy of Concord Music Group)

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

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.

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.

RATING 9 / 10