R.E.M.’s Pinnacle, A Quarter Century On


At the time “Automatic For the People” came out in 1992, I had abandoned my earlier fandom of R.E.M. — who helped popularize college radio in the ‘80s and pave the way for the commercial success of grunge and indie rock in the ‘90s — because hits like “Stand” and “Shiny Happy People” sounded like children’s novelty songs to me.

I was astonished by the quality of this album, which is largely a serious reflection on mortality and grief. (“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” is its sole deliberate attempt at levity.) Released just as the sonic landscape of mainstream rock had opened up greatly, the band responded by getting quieter and more melancholy instead of trying to ape Nirvana’s mix of punk, pop, and hard rock.

“Automatic For the People” is now widely considered R.E.M.’s best album, and while I can’t say it’s as groundbreaking as their very early work’s mix of post-punk and ‘60s folk-rock, it’s one of the greatest examples of how to approach the end of one’s youth within the form of rock music.

Reading “Automatic For the People” as Michael Stipe’s somber response to AIDS

The album received both wide critical acclaim and huge commercial success. It peaked at #2 on Billboard magazine’s top 200, sold 3.5 million copies in the US and 18 million worldwide, and spawned six singles, the most popular being “Drive.” Instead of touring to promote it, the band kept making videos, and they are all collected on a Blu-Ray with this new 25th anniversary set, which also includes the original album, a live album taken from the one concert they played in 1992, and 20 demos from its recording sessions.

There are a few songs on “Automatic For the People” which rock out, especially “Ignoreland,” an attack on the lingering ugliness of George H. W. Bush’s politics. But the album is filled with acoustic guitars, strings (arranged by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones), and keyboards.

For me, its highlight is “Nightswimming,” a song on which guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Bill Berry don’t even play. To the accompaniment of Mike Mills’ piano and Jones’ string section, singer Michael Stipe evokes carefree “recklessness in water.” The singer has admitted that “Automatic For the People” is haunted by AIDS, which was killing off many of his friends around the time he made it. To me, whatever “Nightswimming” may have literally been inspired by, it reads now as a look back on a time before people were aware of HIV and felt much freer sexually. Stipe’s vocals and the instrumental melody are both nostalgic and deeply sad. The Blu-Ray includes an eight-minute version of the video, directed by experimental filmmaker Jem Cohen, featuring nudity and more narrative context.

The live and demos sets are a study in contrasts. While this live album is R.E.M.’s fourth official one, it’s the only one recorded this early in their career. The band plays with a punch they rarely achieved in the studio when they wanted to rock out, especially on a cover of Iggy Pop’s “Funtime.” On a quieter note, there’s a moving version of “Country Feedback.” The sound quality is excellent.

On the other hand, sitting through 79 minutes of unfinished versions of “Automatic For the People” tracks is a slog. The song titles are deceptive: “Michael’s Organ” is really a version of “Everybody Hurts,” consisting of Stipe singing it, accompanying himself on the organ and a drum machine. The collection includes versions of numerous songs recorded when the instrumental track was complete but Stipe hadn’t yet written the lyrics, so he just sings nonsense syllables at random places. There are two complete songs that are quite good and could have fit on “Automatic for the People” — “Mike’s Pop Song” and “Devil Rides Backwards” — plus “Photograph,” a duet with Natalie Merchant that was released on the “Born to Choose” compilation.

At the time this album was released, Stipe was publicly rather coy about his sexuality, but two years later, he started opening up about the fact that he was attracted to both men and women. By 2001, he told “Time” magazine he was a “queer artist.” But even if Stipe wasn’t honest about his bisexuality when “Automatic For the People” came out, its somber tone of facing down death now comes across as an unmistakable reaction to the way AIDS was decimating gay and bi men in the early ‘90s. Around 1992, Stipe was facing the false rumor that he himself was ill with AIDS.

One of its biggest hits, “Everybody Hurts,” rejects the temptation of suicide. Other tracks, like the closing “Find the River,” are similarly downbeat but ultimately hopeful. “Drive,” especially in the context of its video’s images of Stipe crowd-surfing and the band getting sprayed with water, rejects the Dionysian promise of rock’n’roll mythology for something more down-to-earth.

I can’t say that this reissue of “Automatic for the People” is worth getting for the previously unreleased demos (I’d recommend downloading “Mike’s Pop Song,” “Photograph,” and “Devil Rides Backwards” off iTunes as individual tracks), but I stand by my 25-year-old opinion that the original album is a classic. The live album lives up to it, the Blu-Ray of videos is worth owning, and the Dolby Atmos mix sounds remarkable, even on the demos.

R.E.M. | “Automatic For the People 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” | Craft Recordings | $25 for original album reissue; $85.00 for deluxe set | concordmusicgroup.com