Sunday, November 06, 2005

Influential Albums from My Misspent Youth
4. R.E.M., Automatic for the People (1992)

This has never been my favorite R.E.M. album. That position has been held over the years by Document, Murmur, Reckoning, sometimes even New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Yet Automatic, still much-beloved by many, is worth pondering, over 10 years after its release.

At the risk of coming off nostalgic or rockist, Automatic now feels (for me anyway) like one of the last hurrahs of the Rock/Pop Album as a Big Statement and central cultural artifact. The album captivated a sizable amount of critics and buyers in its time. It felt like a cohesive, complete statement. Not every track on the album was equally great, but every track felt like it was there for a reason. Also, Automatic was a maturation in the best way possible; not one in the sense of losing a sense of risk or nerve, but in the way the album confronted big, sobering issues (most plainly, death) head-on and clear-eyed.

Not that Automatic was the only album at the time that was received as a complete work. You could possibly say the same about concurrent releases (give or take a couple years) by U2, Arrested Development, Nirvana, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Public Enemy, Counting Crows, and Pearl Jam. But we’re talking about this album now, because it represents R.E.M. at a moment when they were, somehow, the right band at the right time. Not everyone liked them, but they seemed capable of uniting a fairly diverse crowd – the preppies, jocks, misfits and all their parents too. Also, muted, acoustic-based albums weren’t – I don’t think – known to sell in mass quantities in 1992. After this album, they were probably more likely to. This of course means you can trace a lot of crap music back to R.E.M., but that’s an argument that never goes anywhere. Name me a great band that never wound up spawning a bad one.

The other thing that sticks out when I listen to this album now, though, is just how weird the singles are. The one song that seemed an obvious single, the guitar-heavy “Ignoreland,” never became one, although I believe AOR stations latched onto the track. The first single “Drive” was lurching and spooky, with a lush string section (arranged by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones) and an electric guitar riff Peter Buck said was a tribute to Queen’s Brian May. Another single, “Man on the Moon” has since had all of its nuance sledgehammered out, thanks to the band’s many sludgy arena renditions and a god-awful movie ostensibly inspired by the song. Listen to the original version, forget about the Andy Kauffman angle, and the song’s delicate mystery returns. To this day, does anyone know what that business about Mott the Hoople and Monopoly is all about?

And then there’s “Everybody Hurts.” Listen to those chords, that rhythm. This is pretty much a doo-wop song, people. Forget the generational angst. Maybe this song became one of R.E.M.’s biggest hits by crossing over to Boyz II Men fans.

Other songs stick out: Listening to “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” now, I realize that the song is pitched right at the edge of Michael Stipe’s vocal range, and he sounds very strained and unnatural as a result. “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” “Sweetness Follows” and “Nightswimming” have aged considerably better, thankfully. “Try Not to Breathe” might still be one of my favorite songs of theirs.

So why don’t I consider this my favorite R.E.M. album? Maybe because it tackles those big themes – memory, regret, death. Some of my favorite albums go to those same places. But R.E.M. just aren’t a Big Theme band for me. I like them best when they’re being oblique and mysterious, when they’re occupying shadows most jangly guitar bands wouldn’t even think to inhabit. Automatic, for all its subtle moments, still overdoes it in the grandstanding department. Of course, that’s probably what helped make it such a popular album in the first place.

(Next in this series: The Kinks’ UK Jive, or Another Kinks Essay?)


Blogger katerschell said...

You're right that "Ignoreland" wasn't a commercially released single, but promo singles were shipped to radio.

10:30 PM  
Blogger j. edward keyes said...

I agree with you completely on this one; I remember the crazy 5-Star Review in Rolling Stone and the feeling, even at the time, that this was somehow the End of Something -- though I think it ended up representing more of an End of Something for R.E.M. than for albums on the whole; It's not my favorite album of theirs either, and I think it's aged really strangely, but at the time it was all I wanted to listen to nearly every day for a year straight.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Musician Magazine published a twin rave review of both Automatic and Peter Gabriel's Us. I distinctly recall buying both of them in the fall of '92 at the record store owned by the mayor of my town. Both of them were very good albums for fall, for a teenager who maybe took himself a little too seriously.
Say what you will about Automatic, it's aged much better than Us, I'm willing to bet. I caught the video for "Steam" on VH1 Classic a few weeks ago. Both the song and the computer effects are really, really dated.

9:44 AM  
Blogger japanesegodjesusrobot said...

I agree with you completely as well. I think of it as REM's last great album (and the last one I own incidentally), though it's by no means their best. And you're right about "Nightswimming" aging really well. I think that it should've been a huge hit. I know it was released as a single overseas (Australia). They definitely had the right idea there. Also, the other song you cited is "Sweetness Follows" (you wrote "Sleepness Follows" though I can understand why given the song's slow tempo).

2:55 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Thanks Matt, I made the change. Now someone write a song called "Sleepness Follows," please!

9:24 AM  

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