'Automatic For The People' at 30: revisiting R.E.M's finest hour
The 1990s was the last truly great decade for rock music, and chief among this boom was R.E.M.
When 'Automatic For The People' hit shops around the world this week in 1992, Nirvana were defining the zeitgeist with their landmark 'Nevermind' album, Faith No More found themselves as unlikely kingmakers in the genre, a young PJ Harvey had just broken through and the quirky stylings of Spin Doctors were dominating the airwaves.
It was an embarrassment of riches for rock fans, but it was R.E.M. that ended up defining the decade with their seminal album.
R.E.M. were able to achieve what very few bands can ever achieve; they were a rock band for people who didn't like rock.
Even for people who weren't avid readers of Hot Press or NME, R.E.M. attained the status as the hippest band around, and had a "must-listen" status in a way most rock bands since have failed to achieve.
The band had been together for 10 years before attaining household name status, with 1991's 'Out Of Time' spawning the monster hit 'Losing My Religion', and when the Georgian quartet headed into the studio to record a follow-up album, they were brimming with confidence.
The seeds of the album had already been planted when 'Out Of Time' was in the mixing stages, with the tracks 'Drive', 'Try Not To Breathe' and 'Nightswimming' recorded at Paisley Park Studios.
Those three songs are indicative of the sweeping and rich textures that would underpin the album - perhaps recording in the same space Prince occupied served as the impetus for R.E.M. to record the best music of their career.
Liam Fay from Hot Press' review of the album noted that "the whole thing was actually recorded, from soup to nuts, in only a little over three months," and put it best: "what we have here is a band at the zenith of its powers."
Try Not To Breathe
Despite the strong creative streak, the album was underpinned by uncertainty and anxiety - and this translates into the finished product.
Speaking to NPR in 2017, frontman Michael Stipe said the recording process was happening at a turbulent time in his life with his grandparents nearing the end of their lives, looking after a sick dog, and the spectre of the HIV/AIDS pandemic hanging over him personally.
"I had spent the better part of the last decade wondering whether I was HIV positive and realizing, finally, I could get anonymous testing after 1987, and knowing that I was healthy and that I had really dodged more than one bullet."
Stipe noted, "there was death all around, and it wasn't a conscious decision to write a song or to write a series of songs or an album's worth of death songs... but that's kind of what it turned into."
The success of 'Losing My Religion' vindicated the left-of-centre sensibilities the band were known for - who would have ever thought a mandolin-led pop song would go on to dominate the world? - and recording for the album was an instance of everything clicking for the group.
Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones was brought in to add string arrangments on some tracks, and the strings kicking in during the bridge of 'Drive' is a statement of intent for the album as a whole.
Songs that are already gorgeous on paper are given an extra bit of oomph, and that is the greatest trick of 'Automatic For The People'.
'Drive' was chosen as the lead single for the album, which seems like a fairly odd choice, but per Stipe, this was chosen because R.E.M. had grown to such a level after 'Out Of Time' that they had carte blanche.
'Drive' is among R.E.M.'s most explicitly political tracks (although Rage Against The Machine would take the mantle as rock's most political band, with their self-titled debut album releasing the month after 'Automatic For The People') with the lyrics specifically calling out fears of a possible 2nd term for incumbent President George H.W. Bush.
R.E.M. campaigned for Michael Dukakis in the 1988 Presidental election that was ultimately won by Bush, and the band feared that a second Bush term would prove ruinous for their country.
The American presidential election of 1992 is regarded by analysts as the first election where baby boomers elected one of their own into office in the form of Bill Clinton, and R.E.M. had a not-insignificant role in getting Clinton into the White House.
R.E.M. used the CD release of 'Out Of Time' to include a card that encouraged their fans to lobby their elected representatives to sign legislation that would allow people to vote in elections when they renewed their driving license.
The "Moter Voter" act, as it became known, was signed into law by Bill Clinton a few months into his presidency, in no small part thanks to R.E.M. bringing the issue to the attention of their large, youthful fanbase.
As such, 'Drive' is a reminder of the sharp-minded rhetoric that helped differentiate R.E.M. from their peers.
'Drive' was chosen as the lead single, with Stiple noting "we knew at this point that we could put up basically anything as a single and it would get played on the radio, and it would get played on MTV — we were in a position of great power, being a popular band that they had to play."
"They had to at least give us a week or two weeks of something. And so we chose these really weird songs as the ones to throw out there," he explained in 2017.
The video for 'Drive' was directed by Peter Care, and the Englishman is just as vital to this era of R.E.M. as album producer Scott Litt.
His black-and-white videos are able to tell stories with the sound turned off, and the video for 'Drive' is nearly expressionistic in its composition.
A young Adam Scott is featured in the video, and the video is simply the band playing to a horde of fans.
Care would later go on to direct the video for 'Man On The Moon' and the simple black-and-white cinematography was stylish enough to make it stand out from the sepia-toned music videos of 1992, but simple enough to make it catch your eye.
Between all the lyrics about Reaganism, Andy Kaufman, and skinny dipping, there is always something new or pleasing to treat the listeners' ear, be it Jones' strings or Mike Mills' Beach Boys-style vocals on 'Try Not To Breathe', the album always has something up its sleeve.
The most famous track on the album is 'Everybody Hurts', a song that has been used to the point of parody like 'We Are The Champions' or 'Jump Around', and yet still hasn't lost any of its punch.
Despite being used as a shorthand to express grief in film and television, 'Everybody Hurts' is R.E.M. at their most longing, and Michael Stipe's voice, already a gift for any band, soars more beautiful than ever before.
The Fellini-inspired music video also does a lot to sell the song's themes of the one thing that unites everyone regardless of background - sadness.
When John Paul Jones' strings swell in the final chorus, it gives you the strength to tackle the day, and when the motorists all decide to walk with R.E.M. down the motorway in the music video it is an act of spontaneity that underpins the message of the song: everybody does hurt in some shape or form.
Writing about 'Everybody Hurts' is like trying to describe breathing; in the purest sense, it is a song that sounds like it could have existed at the dawn of popular music.
'Everybody Hurts' holds the distinction of being the only R.E.M. track to hit number one in Ireland and the UK, but the version was not performed by the band.
After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in early 2010, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown tapped Simon Cowell to cobble together his stable of stars to record a cover version for relief efforts.
R.E.M. waived any potential royalties from the cover, and even when the song is performed drunkenly at karaoke, on talent shows, or by an all-star cast of pop stars, the song has an undeniable power to it.
The tracks on the album that didn't become singles such as 'New Orleans Instrumental No.1' or 'Star Me Kitten' are the band at its most experimental and off-kilter, but it somehow fits in with the rest of the album being an exercise in exploration.
'Automatic For The People' contains an absolutely embarrassing amount of songs that would go on to become hits, with 'Everybody Hurts', 'Man On The Moon', 'Nightswimming', 'The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite' and lead single 'Drive' all featuring on the album.
The variety between those 5 singles (all of which charted within the Irish top 20) is astounding, with all of those songs unquestionably fitting into the rock classification, but all featuring enough flourishes or ideas to make them stand out from each other.
'The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite' is the most straight-down-the-middle track on the album, and is consistent with the band's fondness for 60s-tinged pop as seen in songs like 'Stand' or 'Shiny Happy People'.
For fans who may have been turned off by the band going mainstream with 'Losing My Religion' or 'Stand', album deep cut 'Ignoreland' serves as an olive branch for fans who wanted something more in line with their IRS record days.
'Ignoreland' is a reminder to the fans that R.E.M. can still turn up the tempo when they wanted to, and while that idea was fully explored with 'Accelerate' in 2008, the rest of the album is still mid-tempo and contemplative.
'Automatic For The People' is perhaps the closest R.E.M. ever got to making a concept album, and the underlying theme with this album is death and the emotions surrounding it.
Dickinson, Thomas, Whitman and Auden were exceptionally gifted wordsmiths at weaving words about the end of life into prose, but R.E.M. made laments about death into rock classics.
This is most explicit in 'Try Not To Breathe' and 'Sweetness Follows', and by this stage in their career, R.E.M. were exceptionally gifted at writing songs dealing with just about any emotion.
Memories of shy teenage years, ruefulness about the late Montgomery Clift or telling us that death is a form of beauty in 'Sweetness Follows' is what helped elevate R.E.M. above their peers.
The Athens, Georgia band wore their heart on their sleeves, and their sentimental streak is what helps the album soar.
'Automatic For The People' is R.E.M.'s finest hour, and it still endures 30 years later for that exact reason; this is the sound of a band at the height of their powers.
The album represents the promise of R.E.M. and solidified their transition from indie darlings to household names.
The Rolling Stone review from the time noted the album saw "the Athens subversives reveal a darker vision that shimmers with new, complex beauty."
The View from 92
A snapshot of pop music in October 1992 showed a strange and electric mix of music in the pop charts - the number one single in Ireland the week 'Automatic For The People' was released was 'Rhythm Is A Dancer' by Snap.
As we stated at the top of the article, 1992 was an incredible year for rock music, but R.E.M. were the only rock band that could challenge the likes of Whitney Houston or Madonna on the pop charts.
In 1992, U2 were at the height of their critical success with their landmark album 'Achtung Baby', Shakespeare's Sister scored the unlikeliest of number one hits with 'Stay', and Whitney Houston was about to cement her place in the history books as one of the greatest pop artists of all time with her soundtrack for 'The Bodyguard'.
Indeed, the soundtrack for 'The Bodyguard' would end up winning Album Of The Year at the Grammys at the expense of 'Automatic For The People'.
Nirvana were also firmly established as the most important thing to happen to rock music since The Clash by 1992 (indeed, 'Man On The Moon' contains a cheeky tribute to Kurt Cobain, with Stipe's repeated "yeah yeah yeahs" an effort to outdo Cobain's verbal tic) but R.E.M. ended up as the band with the greater legacy.
Chris Martin has often stated that 'Nightswimming' is the "greatest song ever written" and while your mileage may vary about Coldplay's music, it is difficult to imagine the band existing without R.E.M. making yearning about life a commercial genre.
'Automatic For The People' stands out as the best music that 1992 has to offer - in no small part because it sounds like it could have come out in 1962 or 2022.
The New York Times review of the album from the time states "a sense of exhaustion permeates this album of acoustic meditations," and considering the circumstances of the last few years, that has given the album a new lease of life.
The album sounded out of place in contrast to the preppy, upbeat pop music of the time, or the haunted, angst-ridden grunge that was all the rage in 1992.
And yet, the record-buying public bought the album in their droves, and major critical acclaim followed.
'Automatic For The People' ended up as the best-selling album of the bands career, finished the 1990s as one of the 20 biggest-selling albums in the United Kingdom, and listeners of Ed Smith's wonderful radio show on Today FM on Sunday nights will be aware that he will always try to get a track from the album on the playlist.
Peter Buck would later tell band biographer David Buckley that the band members turning 30 was something that was on the band's minds as they went to record the album.
Peter Buck told R.E.M. biographer David Buckley that the album was inspired by "that sense of turning 30 - we were just in a different place and that worked its way out musically and lyrically."
30 years on, it is hard to argue with Buck's summation.