Title: Automatic for the People
Released on: Oct. 5, 1992
Favorite tracks: [None]
If the REMtrospectives have so far seemed like an aging fans on-line admiration society (See you next tour!), well, now we come to Automatic For the People. Huge hit. Three top 40 hits in the U.S. and U.K., 75 weeks on the album charts in the U.S., 179 in the U.K. Source of song that became a youth anthem (Everybody Hurts) and another that provided the title for a movie (Man in the Moon.)
And I dont like it. A couple of songs I actively loathe. The only reason I wont call it my least favorite REM album is that I just havent listened to Up, Reveal or Around the Sun enough to know how theyd stack up. I know some people adore it and I get the impression that a whole new generation and fan base discovered REM through Automatic for the People -- which, for me, is part of the problem.
Of the tracks on the album, Everybody Hurts inspires my strongest feelings, because I find it to be cloying, sentimental slop. It simply strikes me as obvious and banal, and given how most of Michael Stipes lyrics tend to be elusive and enigmatic, its real anomaly among their songs. If Stipe didnt sound so sincere in it, Id suspect it of being some kind of put-on like The One I Love, which is not to be taken at face value. The thing is, lots of people are content with taking Everybody Hurts at face value. If it comforts the depressed, what kind of @$$hole would I be to tell people theyre taking comfort from the wrong thing?
Part of what irritates me about Automatic For the People is that, were it an album from any other band, Id think they were explicitly pandering to angst-ridden teenagers. The first track on the album, Drive, addresses young people directly: Hey, kids, rock and roll / Nobody tells you where to go and later Hey, kids, where are you / Nobody tells you what to do. (In contrast to Everybody Hurts, though, I really LIKE Drive, especially when the Bucks electric guitar riffs come slicing in.) Ive heard that the song and the title have a connection to the Motor Voter Bill, which makes sense. In Drive, Everybody Hurts and a few others, the band sounds like hip Uncle Mike giving advice to the teens. Its like The Band You Grew Up With, the tongue-in-cheek catch-phrase for REMs first greatest-hits collection Eponymous, turned out to be sincere.
The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, ties in with those songs in its nostalgia for childhood, but, if you put aside the implications that the speaker is a homeless mad, the song comes this close to being infantile. The quavering, voice-cracking Michael Stipe of Greens The Wrong Child (another song from a kids point of view) returns with the line A caaaAAAaaandy bar, a faaaAAaalling star and the piercing echo at the beginning of the Wimoweh intro of the original Lion Sleeps Tonight. (For 1990s-era homages to that song, I prefer They Might Be Giants The Guitar.) When I unpacked Automatic for the People in 1992, I remember being dismayed that, on an album with very few fast, up-tempo songs, Sidewinder was one of the only exceptions.
Part of why Automatic for the People isnt my cup of tea is because its such a mellow, restrained album. Where are the rave-ups? I wouldnt call it soporific, exactly, although Star Me Kitten sounds deliberately like the bands nodding off. REM seems genuinely interested in exploring the possibilities of the albums direction. Its a deliberate step away from the bouncy, Shiny Happy People-type numbers and bright, resounding Kate Pierson back-up vocals of Out of Time, choosing instead to bring in piano (Nightswimming) and strings. From Wikipedia: John Paul Jones, the bassist of Led Zeppelin, in his string arrangement role, scored the strings for "Drive," "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite," "Everybody Hurts," and "Nightswimming."
The Led Zeppelin connection may explain my knee-jerk response to the album as being high school oriented, because some of the arrangements remind me of songs I listened to when *I* was in high school. The opening of Drive, with the quiet guitar chords and prominent use of the word Hey remind me very much of Pink Floyds Hey You, while the last part of Everybody Hurts, with the rolling Hold ons, seems inspired by the Youre not alone! ending/crescendo of David Bowies Rock n Roll Suicide. (Incidentally, both the REM and the Bowie song remind me of Heathers and how the high school kids listen to a band called Big Fun, whose hit song is Teenage Suicide Dont Do It.)
Id almost say that Automatic for the People sounds like a Michael Stipe solo album, except that I suspect that Buck, Mills and Berry find a fair amount of creative consensus with Stipe (and each other). I cant imagine that they wouldnt have lasted so long, with so little apparent tension (Berrys departure notwithstanding), if they didnt have a productive working relationship. Nightswimming certainly sounds like a personal reminiscence from Stipe, who denies that its autobiographical. That kind of sad-eyed, ruminative storytelling/epiphany approach to songwriting doesnt really interest me, but Mills plays a lovely piano on it. I cant fault it.
Man in the Moon also sounds like a very personal goodbye to comedian Andy Kaufman, but something about it grates me. Kaufman made and essentially unmade his showbiz career with his prankishness, but the song, while acknowledging Kaufmans playful side, is achingly sincere. (Unless the anemic Yeah yeah yeah is deliberately clichéd.) Given how Kaufmans women-wrestling shtick was an elaborate, not very appealing parody of sexism and pro wrestling, the line Mr. Andy Kaufmans gone wrestling just doesnt strike me as an apt epitaph. It also seems to go on forever.
The two songs that sound the most like regular REM, Monty Got a Raw Deal and Ignoreland, strike me as the least inspired on the album. Monty sounds like something tossed off, while Ignoreland seems like something meant explicitly to fill a niche. Automatic for the People came out about a month before the 1992 presidential election, and you can almost hear the band saying among themselves, Weve gotta have an angry political song, like Orange Crush or Exhuming McCarthy! Its like a derivative knock-off of the earlier ones. When Stipe sings lines like How to walk in dignity with throw-up on your shoes, practically all I can hear is Oooo, Im so mad at you, George Herbert Walker Bush! (Theres a similar political note in the first three words of Drive: Smack, crack, BUSHwacked.) To me, the most interesting thing about Ignoreland is the way the particularly crunchy guitar and distorted vocals anticipate the overall sound of the bands next album, Monster.
Still, the overall instrumentation I find pleasant to listen to, particularly on the tracks I like: Drive, Find the River, Sweetness Follows with its churchy keyboard and the haunting Try Not To Breathe, which has a strange, insistent quality, while also sounding like it was recorded on some kind of submarine. Automatic for the People definitely qualifies as a successful experiment lots of people liked it, and it accomplishes what I think the band intended for it to do. But by moving away from their urgent, hard-charging brand of rock, its like they were writing songs with one hand tied behind their collective back.
Early listening conditions: For years, starting around 1986 or 1987 I made year-end mix-tapes for my friends and gave them out at Christmas. I always thought of the tapes as an ideal gift, because theyre personal from me, yet I could mass-produce them. When the 90s gave way to the 00s, I was less connected to new pop music and had harder time filling up 90 minute tapes with songs, and I eventually gave up the practice when Sweetness was born; I made my last year-end mix-tape in 2002 which was just as well, since practically no one was listening to music on tapes any more.
REM songs were always prominent on my year-end tapes, until Automatic for the People came out. I just couldnt find a song that I liked enough to go on my tape that year. That was huge for me. HUGE. Its like when I stopped watching The Simpsons as appointment viewing, even though it was one of my favorite shows throughout the 1990s and beyond. REM returned to my good graces, but it was like the end of an era.
I really like their live, funkier version of Drive, however, and I would have put it on my 1992 tape if it had been available. This clip is from the VMA Awards in 1993. Dig Stipe's moves:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/uUA_xqVDhIY" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
For Out of Time, click here.
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