On October 5, 1992, R.E.M. released Automatic For The People, which is widely considered a highlight in the band’s catalog. Yesterday, a special 25th anniversary reissue appeared on Craft Recordings, a good reason to write about one of my favorite alternative rock bands.
Automatic For The People was R.E.M.’s 8th studio album. It came on the heels of Out Of Time, a Grammy-winning record that had brought R.E.M. broad international success. The song Losing My Religion became their highest-charting single in the U.S., peaking at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The original intent for Automatic was to make an album that was more rock-oriented than its predecessor. Instead it turned out to be more subdued, focusing on the themes of mortality and dying. This was a big contrast to Shiny Happy People, which lead singer Michael Stipe during a recent NPR interview called a “great bubble gum pop song” and a tune he is not particularly proud of.
Reflecting on Automatic, Stipe noted in a press release announcing the anniversary edition, “Mortality is a theme that writers have chosen to work with throughout time. It speaks of the fragility and beauty of life and living life to the fullest in the present moment. It happens all too quickly and we all know that.” Added R.E.M. co-founding member and bassist Mike Mills, “I think it’s our most cohesive record…It’s the strongest from first to last.”
The album opens with Drive, which also was the lead single released a few days prior to the record. Like all tracks on the album, Drive is credited to all four members of R.E.M., who in addition to Stipes and Mills included Peter Buck (lead guitar) and Bill Berry (drums). According to Songfacts, Stipe commented on the tune in the November 12, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone: “There were, before Punk, a few songs that resonated with me. One was David Essex’s “Rock On”. “Drive” is an homage to that.” The line, “Hey kids, rock n’ roll” was taken from that song.
The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite with an upbeat melody is a deliberate contrast to the rest of the album. The beginning sounds very similar to the Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens. In fact, R.E.M. decided to pay for the rights to use it. Stipe told NPR he wouldn’t have put the track on the record, had the band not insisted, though he admitted it is catchy. One of the tune’s characteristics is Stipe’s laughter following his inability to properly pronounce the name Dr. Seuss. The band felt it reflected the song’s joy and decided to keep it.
Everybody Hurts is the standout on the album. According to Songfacts, the anti-suicide song was mostly written by Berry who in particular wanted to address young people. Apparently, it had a strong reaction among fans. “The number of times people have said, ‘you’ve saved my life or ‘the song was there at a time when I really needed it, thank you’… that’s my academy award,” said Stipe during the NPR interview. “That’s bigger and better than anything anyone could say to me. Something we did had a positive impact on their life in a moment of great need and a moment when they needed something like that it was there. So that makes me really happy.”
Another tune I’d like to highlight from the original record is Man On The Moon, a tribute to American comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufman, and one of R.E.M.’s best known songs. During the above NPR interview, Stipe said he initially felt the tune didn’t need a voice but the band insisted. Watching a VHS tape of Kaufman finally inspired the lyrics. “Somehow he became my hero with the 1,000 faces and these kinds of larger than life questions,” Stipe reflected, “literally larger than life questions about existence and what happens after we’re gone, or did the man really walk on the moon.”
The 25th anniversary issue is available in various formats: a vinyl LP, a 2-CD edition and a 3-CD + Blu-Ray Deluxe Edition. The latter comes in a lift-top box, together with a 60-page booklet. In addition to the original record, the box includes a CD with 20 demos from the album’s recording sessions, a live recording from November 1992, and a remix of the album in Dolby Atmos on Blu-Ray. According to the above press release, it “delivers a leap forward from surround sound with expansive, flowing audio that immerses the listener far beyond what stereo can offer.” Automatic For The People is the first commercial release using this new technology.
The original album was produced by Scott Litt, who together with recording engineer Cliff Norell also created the Dolby Atmos remix. Litt also produced four additional R.E.M. albums (Green, 1988; Out Of Time, 1991; Monster, 1994; and New Adventures In Hi-Fi, 1996) and has worked with many other artists, such as Nirvana, Incubus and Counting Crows. Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones contributed string arrangements for the original recording.
Automatic For The People earned R.E.M. significant commercial success and was generally well received by music critics. The album peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard 200 album charts and topped the U.K. albums chart four times. The record has sold more than 3.5 million copies in the U.S. as of 2017. It was ranked no. 249 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Records of All Time in 2012. In 2006, it also placed no. 37 on the list of 100 best albums ever, as voted by 40,000 people who participated in a worldwide survey conducted by British Hit Singles & Albums and NME.
I’d like to close this post with one of the demos on the anniversary issue. Mike’s Pop Song, one of two previously unreleased songs, has a nice 60s vibe that is a bit reminiscent of The Byrds.
Sources: Wikipedia, NPR “All Songs Considered”, R.E.M. press release, Songfacts, Rolling Stone, YouTube