Monday, August 20, 2007

[087] Automatic For The People

Album: Automatic For The People
Artist: R.E.M.
Release Date: October 1992
Label: Warner Bros.
Producers: Scott Litt & R.E.M.

"Sometimes everything is wrong. Now it's time to sing along."
- from "Everybody Hurts"

Let's get this out of the way - despite being, I think we can all agree, R.E.M.'s "biggest" album, most of the world, no wait, most of the people who bought it consider it to be totally depressing, and probably never listen to it anymore because of that fact. All the college-aged fans from the time have spouses and kids now; they don't want to get all bummed out while Dora The Explorer is on in the other room. All this is probably mostly due to the inclusion of "Everybody Hurts", a song that is not inspiring sing-alongs in pubs anytime soon. I know I rarely listen to it. And of course, if you dig deeper for even 2 seconds, you learn that most of the lyrics for the whole album are about mortality. Oh yeah, AND apparently this disc was in Kurt Cobain's CD player when he picked up that shotgun. I think we can guess what song he was listening to. But wait - what's the point of "Everybody Hurts"? It's to "Hold on"; does nobody get that far into the song anymore, that they can't get past the pain to get to the salvation? I know it's a sad song to us, but to R.E.M., that's a fucking happy song. It doesn't even try to be specific in any kind of way; it's fully, truly, perfectly universal, and we as a world are not confident or strong enough to embrace its gift. What does that say about us, wanting to be down on ourselves all the time?

At the very optimistic least, it means we're a species that's constantly searching for more. I don't really mean greed per se, but more whatever that thing inside us that's the source of selfishness; the thing that makes every human being a slave to the "grass is greener" reflex, that which is the crux of every big decision you ever made. Is this the right job for me? Is he/she the One? Is this person a true friend? Should I leave? What should I do for me? Am I afraid of death? Therein lies the power of post-breakthrough major label R.E.M., and specifically this album. Automatic For The People is a classic of brutally honest introspection.

It's about questions. "Drive" is almost entirely questions, broad ones that can be applied to anything: "What if you did?" Did what?? "What if you walk?" Away from what?? "What if you tried to get off?" Sexually or legally? With who, and at who's expense?? "Where are you?" What business is it of yours?? Michael Stipe grew out of his early impenetrable dark poetry into the psychoanalyst of Pop. He's handing you a blank pad to write the answers for yourself, and in doing that, he releases himself from his own hang-ups. For Stipe to become the voice of the people, he had to unchain his own pain and let it all go. It's on this album that he unleashes the full power of his voice, as pure and vivid as any emotion you've ever felt. Michael Stipe's vocal chords are a gift from whatever god you choose to worship, sent down/up/through to show you the way to an open heart. I know for me, just the sound of his voice can crush me and reduce me to tears. He could be singing the phone book. But we're in luck - he's singing "Nightswimming" instead.

This album is also about pleas, proclamations, and demands. The heart-wrenching "Try Not To Breathe" is an elderly stand for proper remembrance and respect when gone. It's an often overlooked beauty in the band's discography, and would've been a masterful choice for a single if only because the video medium that the band was employing so effectively at the time could've been molded to amplify the message. "Ignoreland" is a political rant that would be just as appropriate now as it was then; while U2 were off exploring love, guitar pedals, and the dancefloor on Acthung Baby, R.E.M. picked up some of their slack, laying down the gauntlet over a sonic approximation of what Led Zeppelin might have evolved into if they survived into the 90's. It's an odd nod to an unexpected influence, even though they were joined on the album by former Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones, who did string arrangements for four tracks here.

Maybe R.E.M. was just one album behind their Irish contemporaries though, because the wonderfully erotic "Star Me Kitten" points directly at their next album, 1994's much-maligned Monster, which is to say where they made a sharp left turn into the guitar store and more adult examinations of relationships. "Kitten" raises all the guitar and organs up to a level where they bleed together, leaving Stipe to mumble his lovers quarrel so low that you'd need to read along to get the story (I did). The song is filled with more open-ended questions, but in hindsight knowing where the band went next, and with this song so murky where the rest of the album is crisp and clear, you're left to wonder if the questions were the band's own. Who's to say the album wasn't just for our introspection, our answers, but for the band too, to answer their own questions? "What is there for me inside?" "Have I misplaced you?" "Have we lost our minds?" "Will this never end?" These aren't just questions of mortality and answers of 'hold on'. These are signposts to where one of our greatest bands would travel in the future, and I think the grass is greener over there (always is, isn't it?). So join me in getting off the fence.

01. “Drive”
02. “Try Not To Breathe”
03. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”
04. “Everybody Hurts”
05. “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1”
06. “Sweetness Follows”
07. “Monty Got A Raw Deal”
08. “Ignoreland”
09. “Star Me Kitten”
10. “Man On The Moon”
11. “Nightswimming”
12. “Find The River”

"Everybody Hurts" [video]

- BONUS: "Drive" [video]
- BONUS: "Nightswimming" [video - UK version]
- BONUS: "Find The River" [video]
- BONUS: "Man On The Moon" with Eddie Vedder
at R.E.M.'s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction

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