For people of a certain age, this album is either going to be praised of hated. Automatic For The People is the 8th album from R.E.M. and the second one they released when they were on a self imposed break from touring. After their previous album 'Out Of Time' the band had wanted to do a more rocky album; so in true R.E.M. style they went against their own wishes when they realised that they were still more focused on their acoustic side. When they were demoing the album, they would trade instruments and often write the songs without drums and it sort of worked for them. So after a few months and recording with long time producer Scott Litt, they released this upon the world not knowing they would be unleashing not only the biggest and most acclaimed album of their careers, but also one of the biggest releases on the 1990's. So because it was everywhere all of the time, lots of people hate it whilst some people love it.
Starting off with lead single "Drive", the band are not hiding that this is not going to be the most pleasant of journey for both you and them. It is just a dark and brooding opening, which along with the video was one of those moments for the generation X age that stands out from a great field of amazing moments. Following on from that is the equally depressing "Try Not To Breath" where Mr Stipe is talking about not being here and stopping his body as it is his own choice, just to get an image to someone who is unspoken in this song. At the time, due to the way Mr Stipe's looks there was lots of rumours of him have AIDS or cancer, songs like this (and most of the album to be honest) did not really help that image.
However, there are a few cracks of light in the album if truth be told. The first of which is "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" which seems to be a string of random phrases which will only make sense to the faithful and to the band themselves. It is a beautiful moment which has an orchestra which is guided by the wonderful John Paul Jones who played bass in that little band Led Zeppelin. Then comes the moment which will either make you cry or want to rip out your hair - "Everybody Hurts". Now this is a song which is given a bad reputation for being one of the most depressing songs ever. However I feel that this is not the case, ok the tune is slow and the orchestra (again conducted by JPJ) is some sombre music, but the lyrics if you listen to them are some of the most hopeful you can ever read. It is telling people to hold on, that they are not on their own and that there is hope and people out there. To quote Will Ferrel in Zoolander - I feel like I am taking crazy pills, especially when people are down on this song. It is one of those moments which should be treasured.
After this in a sort of filler moment this is followed by "New Orleans Instrumental Number 1" and the truly depressing "Sweetness Follows" which is beautiful but it does have a hard act to follow. After the first four songs of such quality, it is inevitable that there would be some moments which through no fault of their own just don't match the heights of the earlier tracks. But this album (unlike Cleansing by Prong - cleverly linked here), they don't put all their best numbers at the beginning; it is spread out throughout the whole album. Next up to prove my point is the wonderfully aggressive (well for these guys) "Monty Got A Raw Deal" which is a story of people trying not to look on when acts of racism are happening in front of them. It is moments like this which show the depth of their writing skills; so subtle and so strong at the same time. Coming after this is another of the more rockier moments with "Ignoreland" which does seem just a little bit out of place on the album. Not a bad tune, just out of place with the rest of what is going on here.
With four songs left to go, they take it down a notch with "Fuck Me Kitten" (or "Star Me Kitten" if you’re soft); this was a song which I used to skip when I was younger, but now I come back to it more often that most of the album. It was also re-recorded much slower for an album released to tie in with the TV show 'The X Files'. Then comes a tune which I will never get sick of and which Mr Chris Chaney has been quoted as saying is one of his truly guilty pleasure - "Man On The Moon". This song is the bands tribute to the comedian Andy Kaufman; it is littered with numerous references to Kaufman's career including Elvis impersonation, wrestling, and the film My Breakfast with Blassie. The song's title and chorus are very loose references to the moon landing conspiracy theories as an oblique allusion to rumours that Kaufman's 1984 death was faked. The video was on the TV all the time when it was released and for good reason, it is a fantastic video and song.
However, whilst this is a fantastic song it is just as well it is not the ending of the album; and here is where the album is at its strongest with the final two tracks "Nightswimming" (piano and orchestra only song about skinny dipping) and "Find The River" which alludes to finding one’s self and moving forward with your own life. Both of these songs might be forgotten against the bigger songs and singles (these two were the last two songs to be released as singles in the UK), but they are just as important in the album. They bring an album to incredible crescendo and end it perfectly. It is rare that hype is deserved; this album is well worth the hype. It is not my favourite R.E.M. album if truth be told, personally there is better out there. But I can see why it is the most important one for them in terms of their career; it took them from being a good band to being a megaband. They may not have been able to keep up the momentum after this, but it is a wonderful moment in their discography.
10 out of ten - This is proof that there is a God
You can purchase the album from Amazon here
You can visit the R.E.M. website here
You can listen to the album on Spotify here
Here are the videos for "Find The River" and "Everybody Hurts"