"Automatic For The People"
Warner Bros. (1992)
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
The retail company with which I am employed (raising money for journalism grad school, guys) has a typical family-friendly playlist of 75 or so songs that play in a random order every day. Most of these songs are sickly saccharine, and make working there a pain. There are a few tracks that make a few passing minutes bearable however. One of these is "Man On The Moon" by R.E.M., from the band's hit record "Automatic For The People." Although the group has been around (technically it folded in late 2011) for more than 30 years, it's safe to describe "Automatic" as part of its "middle period," chronologically.
Chronologically is about the only way to describe R.E.M.'s eras, for the band's sound has never wavered as much as other '80s-to-now mainstays, such as U2. For some, this might sound like staleness, but for most, including myself, R.E.M. represents one of the most consistent groups in rock history. From a whole crop of great albums, "Automatic" is most frequently selected as the best.
After 1991's successful and acoustically-driven "Out of Time" (featuring the band's most lasting hit, "Losing My Religion"), the group was looking to return to a more rock 'n' roll approach, in a similar vein to its debut classic, "Murmur." As it would turn out, the members just weren't out of the mellow phase yet. The opening two tracks, first single "Drive" and "Try Not To Breathe," paint the mood for the rest of the album, placing the somber acoustic guitar and bass above the percussion, with Michael Stipe's voice echoing ominously on the opener. Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones contributes sting arrangements to several tracks (although not the dark cello line in "Sweetness Follows"). "Everybody Hurts" is an unusually straightforward lyrical style for the band, but the anti-suicide elegy hits hardest of all the songs on the album.
Of course, anyone who knows "Man On The Moon," the track I introduced the album with during my lead in, realizes that it can hardly be described as downtrodden. The track is no. 10 on the record, despite its popularity at the time, and it's followed by the hopeful and youthful "Nightswimming." The pair seem to suggest breaking through earlier personal troubles and finding happiness. Closer "Find The River" expresses mixed feelings however, delivering a bittersweet conclusion. In a sense, the dueling moods of the album emulates the course of life itself.
The critics who label this as R.E.M.'s best have valid reasons for doing so. For me, the first album "Murmur" is still the choice cut. Then again, the group's last release in 2011, "Collapse Into Now" was among my favorites last year. Regardless of which you prefer, the fact that all three happened decades between each other stands as a testament to the consistency of R.E.M.
INTERESTING FACT: A poll by the BBC revealed "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" (a single that did better across the pond than at home) featured the most commonly misinterpreted lyrics of any song (second was "Purple Haze"). Stipe's quick delivery of "Call me when you try to wake her" is often mistaken for "Calling Jamaica" among God knows what else.