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100 Albums: "Automatic For The People" by R.E.M.

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: R.E.M.
Title: Automatic For The People
Released: 1992
Genre: Sadness


1991's Out Of Time was R.E.M.'s biggest success after over a decade together, propelled by the mega-hit Losing My Religion, one of the greatest pop songs ever written. The band wanted to get back to their dance-hall, rock-and-roll roots with the follow-up, so they put away the mandolins and started writing.

And when that didn't work out for them, they got the mandolins back out and wrote an album about loss and mourning. According to guitarist Peter Buck, the main inspiration for AftP was just the feeling of turning 30. Perhaps that's why it resonates with so many people. Or perhaps it was just the product of a group of craftsmen hitting their peak--the albums released on either side were also great, and this stretch of their career was their most commercially successful. And it couldn't have hurt that the mid and slower tempo broody-but-oddly-hopeful album fit nicely with the emerging early 90s alternative scene. In an era dominated by Pearl Jam and Nirvana, R.E.M. was something you could listen to with your parents.

AftP is probably best known for Everybody Hurts, a song (and music video) that absolutely revels in its own melancholy before turning wistful in the last twenty seconds or so. It's not the best song--that would probably be Nightswimming--or even the saddest--Sweetness Follows, embedded above--but it was emblematic and cemented the idea of R.E.M. as a "sad" band, a label that would follow them for basically the rest of their careers. And that's kind of a shame, because an overarching theme of AftP is that emotions are tempered and dealt with maturely. As noted above, Everybody Hurts is sad, but it ends on a feeling of positivity and almost whimsy. Sweetness Follows is explicitly about burying family members, but look at the title of that song.

This plays out in a number of different directions across the course of the album. The opener Drive has the prominent lyric "Hey, kids, rock and roll" (yes, lifted from David Essex's Rock On) but the song lurches back and forth from a low-tempo rocker to a stripped-down acoustic ballad. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight is so light it's almost silly, but if you dig into the lyrics you find a story of someone trying to keep in touch with loved ones while on the road. It also has my favorite lyrics of the album:

Baby, instant soup doesn't really grab me
Today I need something more sub-sub-sub-substantial
A can of beans, some black-eyed peas, some Nescafe and ice
A candy bar, a falling star, or a reading from Dr. Seuss

Monty Got A Raw Deal resolves to a chorus of "You don't owe me anything." Raging political rocker Ignoreland admits to the listener "I know that this is vitriol... but I feel better having screamed, don't you?" Even the closer, Find The River, is woven-through with optimism, leaving the album with a final lyric "all of this is coming your way" delivered without even a trace of cynicism.

And I suppose I have to also mention Man On The Moon and Star Me Kitten. Great songs with fantastic titles. If nothing else, R.E.M. knew how to write excellent titles.

There's not a bad or wasted track on this record, and even though it doesn't have the band's best song, it's almost without question their best album (this is a trend you're going to see a lot of over the course of this list, I think).

Further Listening: Out Of Time is largely overshadowed by Losing My Religion, but it's a very good album in its own right, containing love-it-or-hate-it Shiny Happy People and fan-favorite Country Feedback. I'm also a big fan of the album that followed, Monster, wherein R.E.M. were successful in their attempt to write a rock record without mandolins.

Comments

Kathy Schrenk said…
The idea of being maudlin about turning 30 was hilarious to me even at 29. It's not like the average life span is still 35.

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