Automatic for the People
First Appeared at The Music Box, June 2001, Volume 8, #6
Written by Michael Karpinski
Back on October 5, 1992, R.E.M. was a four-man band still basking in Out of Time's decidedly golden afterglow: six MTV Video Music Awards; three Grammys, two Top Ten singles (Losing My Religion and Shiny Happy People), and, eventually, the shifting of 10+ million units worldwide (more than their first six critically-championed albums combined). For drummer/percussionist William Thomas Berry, guitarist/rudder Peter Lawrence Buck, multi-instrumentalist/instrumental backing chanter Michael Edward Mills, and head murmerer/wordsmith John Michael Stipe, life was about as good as it gets.
But it was about to get better. Because, just 24 hours later, Automatic for the People would hit U.S. retail shelves and cement R.E.M.'s legacy as one of America's most indispensable musical resources — one that not only helped shepherd college rock into the "alternative" mainstream, but also almost always had something profound or provocative to say along the way. That, as of the year 2001, Automatic remains the apogee of the Athens, Georgia quartet's career is less a sign of a band in decline than it is a testament to that record's timeless and trenchant observations on the end of the world as we know it and life and how to live it. Leave it to a bunch of agnostic pop-rockers to produce one of the most soothing and spiritual treatises of our time.
Ironically, Automatic for the People was originally intended as a tiger-by-the-tail toss-off — an aggressive, electric cattle-prod to the cajones of anybody bent on interpreting Out of Time's gentle, mandolin-mild eclecticism as a sign of R.E.M.'s imminent interment in the catacombs of "adult contemporary." Ultimately, of course, it would emerge an altogether different animal — a dark, largely acoustic rumination on life and loss that would make its oft-times pastoral predecessor sound like a raucous, B-52's-styled party platter. Only the fuzzed-up, anti-Reagan rant Ignoreland and the swirling, nursery rhyme-absurd The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite strive to ratchet up the amperage, albeit at tempos that can't hold a candle to R.E.M.'s early, breakneck days.
What hasn't changed from that early-'80s age of punk-dusted power pop is the band's mastery of variation-on-a-theme reinvention and the minimalistic — even simplistic — accent and fill. Never professing themselves the anointed ambassadors to a new musical revolution, R.E.M. earned their mettle in the assembly-line trenches — as skilled craftsmen with a knack for hammering out the uncommonly melodic moment. On Drive, it is Buck's layered Les Paul licks commingling with the strings like a python climbing a vine. On Nightswimming, it is the floating oboe that so perfectly appropriates Stipe's love-it-or-loathe-it, sinus-smoke baritone on the outro. Everybody Hurts builds to its climactic crescendo by knowingly riding the Rolling Stones' coattails (You Can't Always Get What You Want). And, finally, on the beautiful acoustic closer Find the River, it is Mills' majestic, John Denver-esque tenor that helps sweep Stipe's metaphorical musings out to peaceful, open sea.
And speaking of Stipe... with Automatic, the often enigmatic soothsayer/satyr challenges himself with some of the most supple, seductive, and accessible singing and songwriting of his career. Whether he's offering deeply affecting and empathetic eulogies to gonzo comic Andy Kaufman (the nostalgic anthem Man on the Moon) and fallen Hollywood Adonis Montgomery Clift (Monty Got a Raw Deal, with its defiant-yet-melancholy strum and stomp), or invoking the then-red-hot specter of Oliver North by corrupting the innocent children's chant "Olly olly, oxenfree" into "Ollie, Ollie, in come free," his demented sense of warped wordplay has never served him better. Indeed, who but Dr. Seuss would think to rap George Herbert Walker Bush's manicured, Kennebunkport knuckles on the hot-button issues of drug addiction and homelessness with lines like, "Smack, Crack, Bushwacked/Smack, Crack, Shack-a-lack" (Drive)? And surely only Lou Reed or Leonard Cohen speaking a blue streak would deem the arrestingly obsessive "You are wild/And I am your possession/... So fuck me, kitten" (Star Me Kitten) a fitting love lyric. Rarely has Stipe permitted his Ouija-board subconscious so much space in which to romp and roam. And rarely has a pop record so essentially obsessed with death made life seem so very well worth celebrating — one precious second to the next.
Of Further Interest...
Automatic for the People is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box