It is no surprise that, upon close inspection, the best songs on R.E.M.’s eighth record appear towards the end. After all, Automatic for the People is an album attuned to approaching a demise – over its twelve tracks, it delves deep into morality and its myriad emotions, love and loss, the grapple of time and a widescreen sense of yearning. For a band that, over the course of their thirty-year career, produced a prolific amount of landmark albums, Automatic for the People remains one of their most coherent, cohesive and crucial.
Those three tracks that bring Automatic for the People to a close – ‘Man on the Moon’, ‘Nightswimming’ and ‘Find the River’ – deploy the dextrous talents of Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry, a four-piece now anchored in their abilities as musicians and friends. Instruments were swapped, some were dropped, and within a plethora of studios the four-piece delicately crafted an album that propelled them into the pantheon of perenially successful rock bands.
With its Soviet-esque font, oblique pattern and greyscale design, the cover for Automatic for the People was proof enough of much darker, sombre territory than the eco-addled gloop of Green and the previous year’s Out of Time. In short, anyone expecting a ‘Stand’ or ‘Shiny Happy People’ this time would be left bitterly disappointed – even the relatively lightweight ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’, reluctantly added to relieve the moribund subject matters, carries a duskier weight.
The albums that defined the 1992 alternative rock scene were, even on a moderate scale, slathered in buzzsaw guitars. For example, critically-lauded LPs such as Sugar’s Copper Blue, It’s A Shame About Ray by The Lemonheads and Sonic Youth staple Dirty were attuned to the still-burgeoning grunge scene. R.E.M. were originally going to add to this canon by producing a record that vetoed the pastoral leanings of Out of Time and instead focused on the fuzz and fury of Peter Buck’s fretwork. Working hard behind-the-scenes without Stipe, once the singer heard the demos he realised they would instead be working on something “very mid-tempo and pretty fucking weird.” While they would finally achieve this wish on the murky glam of 1994’s Monster, 1992 saw them produce an album that sounded, well, nothing like 1992.
The sense of irony that defined the era would come into play on the opening track, however, with the moody, distant strum of ‘Drive’, dryly referencing ‘Rock On’ as Stipe sighs: “hey kids, rock and roll, nobody tells you where to go” before Buck’s acoustic dirge is momentarily bulldozed by blistering guitars, lingering strings and Berry’s powerful drum work. In its volatility, ‘Drive’ matches a generation’s apathy, while the equally rocking ‘Ignoreland’ wires R.E.M. back up to political satire with a whimsical, sarcastic strut.
While melancholy lingers large, Automatic for the People wrestles with the positives and negatives surrounding the afterlife. On the arrestingly-titled ‘Try Not To Breathe’, Stipe attests he has, “lived a full life” while imploring, “I want you to remember” as Mills bathes the acoustics in warm organ. The juxtaposition is perfectly blended on ‘Sweetness Follows’, a song drenched in brutal grief (“ready to bury your father and your mother”) but allowing for cracks of sunlight to shine through the storm.
Alongside the album tracks came two of R.E.M.’s biggest and most recognisable singles. ‘Man on the Moon’, however, almost escaped the cut due to incomplete lyrics. With the deadline looming and Buck, Mills and Berry desperate for some words to match the track’s rollicking country drawl, Stipe took a few days off and drove around, the track blasting back in his car stereo. Two days later, he returned to the studio and sang the lyrics in one take. Longtime fans of life-as-art comedian Andy Kaufman, ‘Man on the Moon’ places the controversial comic in hip Heaven, “goofin’ on Elvis” and “havin’ fun”. Elsewhere, if ever there was proof Automatic… was an album harbouring hope rather than hindrance, the startlingly direct ‘Everybody Hurts’ serves as a sincere plea to those who may have “had too much of this life.”
If the latter’s exposure watered down its potency, the same can’t be said for the gorgeous, soulful ballads that bring the record to a close. ‘Nightswimming’ arrives first, a swirling, cyclical piano motif that’s beautiful in its simplicity, but embellished by Stipe’s twinkling nods to youthful indiscretions, as a cyclone of memories, regrets and hopes wash away. ‘Find the River’ is the thrilling finale, a long-time favourite of the band’s (the Hurculean harmonies provided by Mills and Berry are testament), it’s a song that cushions the impact of adulthood – sadness, loss, yearning, but hope, wisdom and accomplishment morph into a delicate acoustic arpeggio, breezy piano and Stipe’s own soaring brogue.
Hailed by anyone from Kurt Cobain to Tom Jones, Automatic… topped charts across the globe and swept up at the Grammy awards. The record’s more downbeat aesthetic temporarily labelled the band as dour and depressing, but the shackles would be removed as time went on. A series of underrated, but experimental, albums followed, as did the retirement of Berry, meaning a repeat of Automatic‘s voluminous popularity proved elusive. The only LPs closely linked are 2004’s sombre, but somnambulist, Around the Sun, and 2011’s chapter-closing Collapse Into Now.
Automatic for the People quite rightly cemented R.E.M.’s place as one of music’s most important, ambitious and accomplished musicians. But it’s the messages within – of living life to the full before it’s swiftly stolen – that have provided it extra resonance. “I don’t recognise those guys now, but I’m sure proud of them,” says Buck today. “I think they did a good job.” Twenty-five years on, the band may not have lost their eternal modesty, but neither has Automatic… lost its eternal vindication.
Words by Samuel Lambeth