November 13, 2001
Automatic For the People: A strong R.E.M. effort
Automatic For the People, R.E.M.’s eighth studio album, was proclaimed one of the best albums of 1992 by Village Voice and Q Magazine. It’s little wonder, with such moving pieces as “Everybody Hurts” and “Find the River.” This album is memorable for its creativity, its heartfelt lyrics, and its uniqueness in the R.E.M. catalogue.
First of all, R.E.M. is a band well known for being one of the great founders of the alternative music movement in the early 1980’s. In its humble beginnings as a college band in Athens, Ga., R.E.M. consisted of singer Michael Stipe, lead guitarist Peter Buck, bass guitarist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry. At the time of Automatic For the People (AFTP) the band was still together. At present, it is a three-legged dog, which is better than no dog at all, as Stipe says (my paraphrase, of course). This is because Bill Berry left the band in 1997 after the making of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the album following AFTP.
At the time of the making of AFTP, the band was enjoying the highly commercially successful Out of Time, which featured such classics as “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People” (a fun, goofy song if there ever was one). For AFTP, the band took a different angle: Instead of bouncy, happy pop, the music took a melancholy turn with more full orchestration and thoughtful, soul-searching lyrics.
This change in musical style was hardly unusual for R.E.M., because each of their albums has had a unique sound. Anyone who listens to their first album, Murmur, appropriately containing Michael Stipe’s mumbled, obscure lyrics, will be amazed at the fact that they are the same band who just released the ethereal, electronic vibes of Reveal this past summer.
While generally considered an alternative band, R.E.M. did make the Top 40 with “Losing My Religion” and other hits such as “It’s the End of the World as We Know it.” AFTP did it again with popular songs such as “Man on the Moon,” a charming t
ribute to comic/actor Andy Kaufman and “Everybody Hurts,” a plea not to commit suicide, directed primarily at a teen audience, though also a general encouragement to anyone who feels like giving up on life. Note the lyrics, “If you're on your own in this life, the days and nights are long/when you think you've had too much of this life, hang on.” “Everybody Hurts” is typical of the majority of the songs’ slow, brooding style, found on tracks like “Sweetness Follows,” “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” and “Nightswimming.” Q Magazine raved, “...a lively form of bliss is readily available from the sounds of [AFTP]....Big emotions, big ideas....it's about life. Without embarrassment and via sundry dark metaphors, it enquires `What's it all about, if anything?'...” (11/92, p.117).
While R.E.M. always gives equal credit to all members for the songs, usually Michael Stipe writes the lyrics according to melodies already composed by the other band members. This album’s intended audience was most likely people in their teens up through age 35 or so. I really feel the band has appeal for a wide age range. All the songs are original; that is, there are no cover versions of other bands’ songs. Most of the songs on AFTP are vaguely love songs, but many are just meditations on life, death, and protest. “Ignoreland” stands out because it is a hard-rock song protesting the Reagan administration and Republican politics in general.
The album was recorded in various locations, such as Bearsville Studio in New York, Criteria Recording Studios in Miami, Fla., and other studios in Athens, Ga., New Orleans, La., and Atlanta, Ga. Produced by R.E.M. and Scott Litt, who worked with the band on several other albums, AFTP was released in 1992 during an election year in which Bill Clinton became president (perhaps explaining their venting about grievances from the two previous Republican administration
s). This was before the Seattle-based grunge rock movement took off, (which affected later musical efforts by the band, such as the hard-rocking Monster, with a track devoted to Kurt Cobain, lead singer of grunge band Nirvana, who committed suicide). In terms of popular culture, the band provided inspiration to society with “Everybody Hurts” and memorialized Andy Kaufman in “Man on the Moon.” That song was later used (in 1999) as the title track for the Milos Foreman directed film of the same name, for which R.E.M. composed a whole soundtrack.
In my opinion, the best song on the album is “Find the River,” a melancholy-sounding song about how the river ends in the ocean, or how life flows eventually to death. For me, the song has always been about soul-searching and trying to find your path in life, your purpose, and about enjoying the journey along the way. A sample of the lyrics: “Me, my thoughts are flower strewn, ocean storm, bayberry moon/I have got to leave to find my way/Watch the road and memorize this life that pass before my eyes.” I once thought of going to college as leaving home to find my way in life. This summer I interned at a magazine in California, and one night, as I sat on a lifeguard tower watching the moon rise over the sea, I was listening to this song, and, though it may sound cheesy, I was struck by the fact that I had finally come to the river’s destination, the ocean. I found that what I had left home to find I had had with me all along. I felt whole as a person who was living out my dreams and trying to find success, and I knew that I didn’t need to stay at the edge of the continent to get it. I could return to Wisconsin and be satisfied that I had done what I set out to do. As the song concludes, “Strength and courage overrides the privileged and weary eyes of river poet search naivete. Pick up here and chase the ride. The river empties to the tide. All of this is coming your way.”
In my opinion (and in that of many music critics), AFTP is perhaps R.E.M.’s finest album. It was the first one I owned, and it got me hooked on the band. I even traveled to Athens, Ga. to see the r
estaurant called Automatic For the People, which inspired the album’s name. While different from the band’s previous albums, AFTP definitely deserves a good, long listen, perhaps several times with a copy of the lyrics on hand, since Michael’s soft crooning voice can be like at first, little more than murmurs.
My Top 10 Rock n’ Roll Tunes
Kyrie – Mr. Mister
Find the River – R.E.M.
Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
High Enough – Damn Yankees
Ants Marching – Dave Matthews Band
With or Without You – U2
Jack and Diane – John Mellencamp
Desperado – The Eagles
Faithfully – Journey
We Built This City – Starship
This list is by no means exhaustive, and I would need a book to list all my favorites.