Interrobang Rewind: Automatic for the People — R.E.M.

Album cover art for Automatic for the People by R.E.M. CREDIT: WARNER RECORDS
R.E.M.'s eighth studio album is not only considered the band's best from a commercial and critical view, but one of the best albums to come out of the early 90s.

I love to look at “turning point” records, as I call them. These albums are the ones that fundamentally change a band, for better or for worse. Think OK Computer for Radiohead or Metallica’s self-titled. R.E.M., one of the elder statesmen of alt-rock, has its own version, with Out of Time, the album that took them out of their underground following and put them into the mainstream. But the album of focus today is the band’s next record, 1992’s Automatic for the People, as it’s just too captivating to not talk about.

Automatic was an instant success, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album charts and unanimous praise from critics. The album touches on mortality, loss, grief, and nostalgia, with music that differed even more from the band’s established sound then their previous did. The music is slow and acoustic, with much more piano and even string sections. As frontman Michael Stipe tells it, it was “pretty f-ing weird.”

The album’s tone and pace is immediately set with the opener “Drive.” It’s an acoustic tune, with a heavy reverb applied to Stipe’s vocals. The song touches on R.E.M.’s position as the “elder statesmen” of alt-rock, with the band essentially passing the torch to the younger generation of musicians, namely bands like Nirvana. “Drive,” and by extent, the rest of this album, is R.E.M. deciding to let that new generation have their time.

Navigator. Londons student lifestyles magazine.

Despite the slowness and overall darker tone to the album, it isn’t a depressing trudge through its 48-minute runtime, far from it. Even “Try Not to Breathe,” a song that has the older narrator of the song wanting to pursue euthanasia so they can die without being a “burden,” is an uplifting acoustic ballad backed with an organ, rather than dour piano. Even the lyrics, while covering a dark topic, have the narrator telling their family that it’ll be OK and that they’ve lived a good life.

To contrast that song, “Everybody Hurts,” one of the most popular off the album, is a dour piano ballad. But the contents of the lyrics are what contrasts “Try Not to Breathe.” The song is a heartfelt plea to those who are in a dark spot of their life to “hold on,” especially the band’s teenage fans. The song could have been cheesy and easy to ignore, with its overly sweet lyrics and sombre mood, but thanks to Stipe’s powerful vocals, the song becomes one of the best on the album.

“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” is a really nice bit of levity on the album, and according to the band, doesn’t mean much more than someone looking for a place to stay. With a catchy instrumental and some silly lyrics, it’s a much-needed bright spot on the album. Politically charged track “Ignoreland” is another break in the album’s set style, but in style rather than tone. The song is spiteful, as the band channels its anger against the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush with fuzzy guitars and intense drumming. The song lands on the conclusion that you can’t do much, but screaming about it does make it feel a little better.

The final song I want to highlight is one of my favourites on the record, “Man on the Moon.” It’s a sombre country-rock tune that both pays tribute to the late comedian Andy Kaufman and pokes fun at the conspiracy theory that Kaufman staged his own death as some elaborate joke. The chorus line, “If you believe they put a man on the moon,” references the common theory that the moon landing was faked, as well as Kaufman’s love for conspiracy theories. It’s one of the few undeniably happy moments on the album, while still being put through the lens of the rest of the album.

If I were to go into the rest of the songs on the album, we’d most likely be here for another 800 words. I’d never been a huge R.E.M. fan before this, but that’s changed since I sat down to write this. This is an album that deserves to be listened to, it’s just too good to ignore.

Editorial opinions or comments expressed in this online edition of Interrobang newspaper reflect the views of the writer and are not those of the Interrobang or the Fanshawe Student Union. The Interrobang is published weekly by the Fanshawe Student Union at 1001 Fanshawe College Blvd., P.O. Box 7005, London, Ontario, N5Y 5R6 and distributed through the Fanshawe College community. Letters to the editor are welcome. All letters are subject to editing and should be emailed. All letters must be accompanied by contact information. Letters can also be submitted online by clicking here.