Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Back Pages, Vol. 6: R.E.M. - Automatic for the People

Welcome to My Back Pages, a collaborative staff feature that will survey a landscape of renowned classics and unheralded gems alike, most of which no one around here ever writes a word about. The rules are simple and loose: we won’t cover anything from this millennium and we will avoid all or most favorites—though we might make an exception if something is nearing a milestone anniversary. Beyond that though, anything is fair game. So if you have an album, artist, or genre you would like to see discussed in this feature, feel free to throw us a few recs.

This week we are revisiting a lifelong favorite of both of ours: R.E.M.'s 1992 classic
Automatic for the People. So check the replies for our thoughts and full Rdio and Spotify streams of the record, and feel free to jump in with any comments, anecdotes, or discussion questions you may have.

Craig Manning: Sometimes, bands stick around for so long that we begin to take them for granted. Once a group of musicians spends 20 or 30 years in each other’s company, we start assuming that they’re just always going to be there, that they’ll tour through a city near us every few years, drop a couple new albums each decade, and repackage their greatest hits once every ten years to keep the classics on the radio. So when R.E.M. finally fractured, called it quits, and walked away in September 2011, the news left me trying to pick my jaw up off the floor. For a very long time, they were a band I admired more than one that I adored. But I was probably the only fan on the planet who loved Around the Sun, and my unexplained gravitation to that much-maligned 2004 release energized my exploration through the rest of their catalog.

There’s something unique about R.E.M. in that, among fans, there really isn’t a “consensus” pick for the best album from their discography. Ask the older crowd, the ones who were there when R.E.M. broke through and basically invented indie rock ‘n’ roll three decades ago, and you’ll hear short, snappy titles like Murmur or Reckoning as favorites. Others, the types that don’t want to be seen as “following the leader,” might go for deeper discs like Lifes Rich Pageant or New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Hell, the guy who ranked all the R.E.M. albums over at Stereogum notched 1987’s Document—the one that launched songbook staples like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and “The One I Love” to the radio—as the greatest of their classics.

But for those of us who were growing up in the nineties, there’s little doubt which album comes to mind first when we think of Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry, and that’s this one: the gorgeously mournful Automatic for the People. Released in the autumn of 1992, Automatic found R.E.M. eight albums and nearly ten years into their career, years removed from their departure from I.R.S., the beloved indie label that had helped to launch them into the stratosphere, and coming off an album that had seemed like an identity crisis. That record, 1991’s Out of Time, contained both a soul-searching rumination on fame (“Losing My Religion,” still the band’s biggest U.S. hit) and a soul-shatteringly awful play for pop stardom (“Shiny Happy People,” enough said). Listening to it now, Out of Time is a solid record with a few throwaways, but its biggest grievance is that it sounds unfocused. Fans could have been forgiven for calling the band “sell-outs” after hearing “Shiny Happy People”—or, for that matter, the equally egregious rap-rock of “Radio Song”—but the biggest problem was that the album they came from only reached greatness a few times. And for a band that had released wall-to-wall classics in their time at I.R.S., inconsistency shouldn’t even have been in the lexicon.

Luckily, R.E.M. came back with Automatic for the People, arguably their most cohesive and consistent album, a mere year and a half later. Heavy on mandolin and acoustic guitar—as well as on string arrangements from Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones—Automatic for the People is the darkest album that R.E.M. ever made. It’s also the best-sounding one, thanks to swelling, layered, and full-bodied production from Scott Litt. And while the more contemplative sound would probably take the band nowhere if the album were released today, Automatic for the People did pretty damn well for itself when it dropped in the middle of grunge phenomenon. Landing at number two on the Billboard 200 and spawning six different singles between 1992 and 1993 (that’s precisely half the album, if you’re keeping track). And we all know the biggest hits: the ominous crawl of opening track and lead single “Drive,” buoyed by the most shadowy acoustic guitar line you’ve ever heard; or “Man on the Moon,” with its anthemic, sing along chorus and Stipe’s momentary Elvis impersonation; or especially “Everybody Hurts,” perhaps the ultimate break-up ballad and a song that, despite borderline punchline status now (I’ve seen more than a few ironic TV and film sequences that use the song’s earnest longing as a backdrop) is still an immensely well-crafted dirge.

But my love for Automatic for the People—which still seems to grow every time I listen to it—really revolves around two different songs. The first is “Sweetness Follows,” the stunning finale to the record’s first side. Acoustic guitar chords are joined by organ swells and explosions of emotive electric guitar feedback (some of Peter Buck’s finest work), creating one of the most striking sonic palettes I’ve ever heard on record. The lyrics are simple, but unique: lost parents and ponderings on mortality build the setting, but the prominent theme is a deeper rumination on the grudges and arguments that can tear families apart. In a single verse (“Listen here my sister and my brother/What would you care if you lost the other?/I always wondered why did we bother?/Distanced from one, deaf to the other”), Stipe paints a portrait of children grown, uniting to put their parents in the ground, but still divided by their differences, by petty arguments that can be neither forgotten nor forgiven. The organ bursts are the funeral procession, but the meat of the song is the duel between acoustic and electric guitar, between one sibling and the other, while Stipe’s reverential vocal delivery holds strong at the eye of the storm. The song, quite simply, is a master-class of tension, and it’s one of my all time favorites for that reason.

And then there’s “Nightswimming,” arguably among the most gorgeous and timeless songs ever written. Back in 2007 and 2008, blogger Matthew Perpetua charted the entire R.E.M. timeline, writing about each and every one of their songs in separate blog spots. And while there’s a lot to praise about “Nightswimming,” Perpetua probably hit upon its single most definitive element first: Mike Mills’ piano line. “It is a piece of music that seems so natural and pure that it’s hard to imagine that there was actually a time when the song did not exist,” Perpetua wrote, and he’s right. The piano line shimmers and rotates around you as Michael Stipe delivers some of his finest poetry, and the melody instantly feels like an old friend. The song is yearning, nostalgic, evocative, beautiful, unforgettable, perfect. From first note to last, it sounds like a summer night, like youth fading away, like the moon and stars and water and sand glowing with the radiance of a dying season. And every time I hear it, each moment, each lyrical image, each elegiac piano chord, brings me back to a moment from my past. “Every streetlight a reminder,” as Stipe sings in the song’s final minutes. On Automatic for The People, “Nightswimming” functions as the penultimate track, flowing perfectly into the almost equally lovely “Find The River,” and together, they constitute one of the greatest finales to one of the greatest records ever made.

Chris Collum: I have been listening to this record for literally my entire life—my mother has told me numerous times that it and Bruce Springsteen’s Lucky Town were the two CDs she and my father had with them in the hospital when I was born (although I did just check the release date was a solid three-and-a-half months after I was born, so maybe that particular piece of family trivia isn't entirely factual. Point still stands though, and they definitely had the Bruce record.) Years and years before I could really understand what they meant, I knew every word to “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” “Man on the Moon,” and “Nightswimming.” Which isn’t to say I necessarily understand them even now; Michael Stipe’s lyrics are notoriously cryptic: “Baby, instant soup doesn't really grab me, / Today I need something more sub, sub, sub, substantial / A can of beans or black-eyed peas, / Some Nescafe on ice / A candy bar, a falling star, or a reading from Dr. Seuss,” he sings on “Sidewinder” before chuckling to himself as he goes into the chorus that on first and fortieth listen sounds like nonsensical babbling—speaking in tongues, perhaps.

The key part of that, though, is the chuckle. Apart from being notoriously cryptic and self-conscious about his lyrics, Stipe was also known for his seriousness throughout the 80s as his band invented and then proceeded to dominate the college rock scene.
But never before Automatic for the People had Stipe sounded so full of life, so vital—even when he’s singing about how he needs “someone to fly over my grave at night,” as in “Breathe.” This is made even more interesting by the fact that while the band was recording the record there were rumors swirling that Stipe was in fact dying of AIDS. Whereas for years Stipe was infamous for his “mumbling” and imprecise vocal style—perhaps buoyed by the smash success of the single “Losing My Religion” the previous year—on this record he embraces his inner rock star more than ever. And he sounds great.

The whole record sounds great, actually, as Craig said. Scott Litt is certainly at his finest here, as the drums, bass, guitars, keys and vocals all leap out of your speakers in a way that only the finest and most precise production work can make them do., even twenty years later. Listen to this album and then listen to some others released in the same time period. While many records released in the late 80s/early 90s, especially more commercial releases such as this one, sound very thin and trebly, Automatic for the People sounds very thick and spacious. In essence, has that “huge” sound that many rock ‘n roll classics do. This is quite a contrast with the claustrophobic, often monochromatic sounds of grunge that dominated the rock mainstream at the time. It was 1992, I think you know what I mean.

As I alluded to in my opening paragraph, Stipe takes us to some fascinating places lyrically as well. The record is by and large a very bleak one, a work of self-reflection that seems to look backwards much more than it does forwards. My personal favorite lyrically is probably “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” which seems to be about/directed to Montgomery Clift, the Pulitzer Prize-winning actor famous for his work in the 1950s. He was also a closeted bisexual according to those who knew him well, and died in 1966 at the age of 45. Lines such as “So I went walking in the street / Saw you strung up from a tree / A woman knelt there, said to me, / Said, “Hold your tongue ma, hold your tongue” cast a shiver down my spine. I’m sure that in the midst of the AIDS hysteria in the early 90s the song was especially significant, but even today it sounds painfully familiar. Elsewhere, on “Star Me Kitten,” Stipe gets kinky in the creepiest (and catchiest) of ways. He sings in a laconic drawl, declaring “You are wild and I’m in your possession, / Nothing’s free so fuck me kitten.” The song also purportedly influenced Kurt Cobain’s lyrics for “Heart Shaped Box,” but that may not be more than a musical myth.

But, as Craig said, the obvious highlight here (and in my opinion in R.E.M.’s catalog) is “Nightswimming.” Whether the ballad is a wistful ode to the early days of college rock, the days before the AIDS crisis emerged and gay men began being vilified publicly, or simply a chronicle of the character in the song (assumed to be Stipe) looking back on his youth, or some cocktail of the three, it is one of the hardest-hitting songs emotionally that I have ever heard. “The photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago, / Turned around backwards so the windshield shows / Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse,” he sings, then winding back to “You I thought I knew you, / You I cannot judge,” then finally to “You I thought you knew me.” The song is beautiful, poetic, cryptic, simple, uplifting and utterly devastating all at once.

Automatic for the People is a wonderful album, and it’s the sort that takes years and years to take a deep root in your mind and your soul. As I said, it has been with me for all twenty years of my life and even returning to it today to write this piece, like Craig mentioned in his bit I am extracting new meaning and emotion from the record. And that truly is the sign of great work of art.

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