Sunday, June 11, 2023

REM #8: Automatic For The People

Release Date: October 5, 1992

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Michael Mills (bass, keyboards); Bill Berry (percussion)

Produced by Scott Litt & REM

Side One: Drive; Try Not To Breathe; The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight; Everybody Hurts; New Orleans Instrumental No. 1; Sweetness Follows

Side Two: Monty Got a Raw Deal; Ignoreland; Star Me Kitten; Man on the Moon; Nightswimming; Find the River

Automatic For The People is considered by many REM's best album. Released a month before the 1992 Presidential election that would elect Bill Clinton, the record is both looking back and exploring how to move forward. With the band entering their 30s and the musical landscape in flux, they made an impassioned effort to push their sound to its limits.  A philosophical album as well, many songs deal with mortality, memory, but also living.

"Drive", like the opening track Murmur "Radio Free Europe." is a clarion call, a displaced anthem with references to the past and present aimed at young people, performed in Stipe's opaque style with a big production with a string section. On "Try Not To Breathe" Stipe takes on persona of a dying woman imploring her family not to worry, a heavy track full of drone and poignancy.  

"The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" has Stipe inhabiting another character, a recluse (possibly a fading rock star) enjoying solitude and the mundane. References to consumer brands like Nescafe and Dr. Seuss create a blissful setting, the production adds an epic quality (also dated now with the recurring image of the pay phone). 

"Everybody Hurts" is perhaps the most straight forward ballad REM had recorded up to that point. With an iconic video and powerful lyrics with the majestic production, the song transcended the band. The swampy "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" serves as a welcoming coda to "Everybody Hurts." The sublime "Sweetness Follows" is another meditation on mortality, ending the first side on a dirge. 

"Monty Got a Raw Deal" is (probably) about the life of actor Montgomery Clift (1920-1966), or in a larger sense the fate of celebrity (works as a companion to the Clash song "The Right Profile"). "Ignoreland" condemns the course of America under the Reagan-Bush regime, the non-confrontational stance of the media, and mentality of the "Super US Citizen." The issues mentioned in the song have not gone way, but more amplified. "Star Me Kitten" is a complex love song, full of drone and droll humor.

Written as a tribute to the late comedian Andy Kaufman (1949-1984), "Man in the Moon" paints a phantasmagoric portrait of the recent past. Major historical figures are referenced alongside cult heroes like Kaufman and the wrestler Fred Blassie, and of course Elvis, who Stipe playfully mimics. The iconoclastic nature of Kaufman, finding humor by exploring the edges, takes on a prophetic meaning.

"Nightswimming" is another ode to solitude, with a simpler arrangement of piano and strings. "Find the River" ends the album on a note of continuity with its metaphorical river journey, encapsulating many of the ideas on the record.

Automatic for the People solidified REM as a musical force for the 1990s, an album of great depth, of its time, but also one of universal themes that seamlessly project into the 21st Century. 

A 40-minute interview with Michael Stipe and Mike Mills on the making of the record:

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