Thursday, August 10, 2017

Automatic for the People

I have a friend who feels that "each R.E.M. album is worse than the previous." He's one of those I.R.S. label snobs, i.e., he feels that the band never made as intimate or exciting an album once they signed with Warner Brothers.  I vehemently disagree.  As late as 1998 they were still breaking ground with their Up album.  As much as I adore the early efforts like Murmur and Life's Rich Pageant, my absolute favorite in the R.E.M discography is 1992's Automatic for the People, which will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary this October.

Such a wonderfully arranged album. Lots of slow tempo ballads. String arrangements are as common as guitar charts.  The mood is somber and mostly defeated, yet there is a strange sense of hope, especially with the album's closer, "Find the River", an astonishingly beautiful song that considers both youth and old age.  Similarly, the gentle remembrance "Nightswimming", with its lovely piano and oboe seduces listeners with some unexplainable, almost supernatural air.  Lyrically, the band seems to be lamenting the passage of time, increasing concerns of mortality, even merely wondering if there is a place to sleep ("The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite").

"Try Not To Breathe", with its end of life lament, has haunted me since the first listen.  It is my favorite track on this album.  In more recent years, my interpretation of it has gone beyond that of someone at the end of his life to perhaps someone who has already passed on.  Imagining the words are coming from some of my deceased loved ones has brought me to tears.   Yet, its sad poetry has this comforting assurance, through its words and also perhaps in part with its conveyance of both melancholy and occasionally more dissonant C & W guitar work by Peter Buck.

Despite the peaceful vibe of most of the album, angers springs forth in the politically charged "Ignoreland", during which lead singer Michael Stipe is railing against the previous Republican Presidential administrations. His delivery is muffled; it takes some effort to catch all the words.  It's as if Stipe is shouting the song through a bullhorn at some rally.  "Drive" seethes in a slower drawl, but is no less pissed at the state of early '90s culture.

"Man on the Moon" was a tribute to the late comedian/provacateur Andy Kaufman, and its title was used for a 1999 film bio directed by Milos Forman.  The unconventional structure of the song (how appropriate for its subject matter) is a tribute to Buck and drummer Bill Berry's adventurous writing, nicely rounded out by bassist Mike Mills.  Stipe's vocal performance on this song is fabulous, suggesting pathos and joy, often at the same time.

My least favorite tune is one of the most popular from this album: "Everybody Hurts" has always been a treacly, over the top, melodramatic bit of pop that just rubbed me the wrong way.  It feels like a deliberate plea to have a hit.  When I read that the song was "aimed at teenagers", those young souls for whom every romantic slight is the end of the world, it made sense.  It didn't help me appreciate it any more.

P.S. "Sweetness Follows" and "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" are respectively used in the films VANILLA SKY and BABY DRIVER quite deftly.

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