Friday, September 12, 2008

REMtrospective, 10: Automatic for the People

Posted By on Fri, Sep 12, 2008 at 7:49 PM


Title: Automatic for the People

Released on: Oct. 5, 1992

Favorite tracks: [None]

If the REMtrospective’s have so far seemed like an aging fan’s 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 don’t like it. A couple of songs I actively loathe. The only reason I won’t call it my least favorite REM album is that I just haven’t listened to Up, Reveal or Around the Sun enough to know how they’d 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 Stipe’s lyrics tend to be elusive and enigmatic, it’s real anomaly among their songs. If Stipe didn’t sound so sincere in it, I’d 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 they’re 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, I’d 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 Buck’s electric guitar riffs come slicing in.) I’ve 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. It’s like “The Band You Grew Up With,” the tongue-in-cheek catch-phrase for REM’s 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 Green’s “The Wrong Child” (another song from a kid’s 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 isn’t my cup of tea is because it’s such a mellow, restrained album. Where are the rave-ups? I wouldn’t call it soporific, exactly, although “Star Me Kitten” sounds deliberately like the band’s nodding off. REM seems genuinely interested in exploring the possibilities of the album’s direction. It’s 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 Floyd’s “Hey You,” while the last part of “Everybody Hurts,” with the rolling “Hold on”s, seems inspired by the “You’re not alone!” ending/crescendo of David Bowie’s “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 – Don’t Do It.”)

I’d 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 can’t imagine that they wouldn’t have lasted so long, with so little apparent tension (Berry’s departure notwithstanding), if they didn’t have a productive working relationship. “Nightswimming” certainly sounds like a personal reminiscence from Stipe, who denies that it’s autobiographical. That kind of sad-eyed, ruminative storytelling/epiphany approach to songwriting doesn’t really interest me, but Mills plays a lovely piano on it. I can’t 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 Kaufman’s playful side, is achingly sincere. (Unless the anemic “Yeah yeah yeah” is deliberately clichéd.) Given how Kaufman’s women-wrestling shtick was an elaborate, not very appealing parody of sexism and pro wrestling, the line “Mr. Andy Kaufman’s gone wrestling” just doesn’t 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, “We’ve gotta have an angry political song, like ‘Orange Crush’ or ‘Exhuming McCarthy!’” It’s 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, I’m so mad at you, George Herbert Walker Bush!” (There’s 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 band’s 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, it’s 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 they’re 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 couldn’t find a song that I liked enough to go on my tape that year. That was huge for me. HUGE. It’s 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="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

For Out of Time, click here.

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