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I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Automatic for the People

Mike Mills gets really annoyed when people pirate their music. So, I'm sorry to say that when I was about 10 (in 1992) my sister got a copied tape of Automatic for the People from someone. On the b-side of the tape I recorded Monster, two years later. This tape was the heart of my REM collection. I didn't really start listening to it until '94, I was busy being a Bon Jovi and Take That fan first #noregrets. But then it took over my life. I listened to it several times a day and when my family went on a trip to Chile in '95 my sister and me listened to it on the several day long car trip up and down the Chilean coast (usually fast forwarding through Monster). The songs are basically part of me now. And if I ever meet Mike Mills, I'll buy him a beer.

Automatic for the People

This album has been rightly called a timeless masterpiece. They did not set out to record a mid/low tempo orchestral album, they had planned to do a proper rock record again and seemed themselves a bit surprised at the outcome. They continue to use a wide range of acoustic instruments, there is an accordion, an oboe, string arrangements, but it does not have the playfulness of Out of Time, it has a melancholy, which cuts deep. They even manage to make Mills' background vocals sound melancholic.
It feels like a less experimental album than Out of Time, most songs primary instruments are bass and guitar and the songs are written in traditional song structure (verse, chorus, verse chorus, bridge etc). Despite the overarching theme of aging, changes, loss and memory of the album, it is not one note. There is cynicism in Drive and Ignoreland, whistfulness in Try not to Breathe, Nightswimming and Find the River, humour in The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite and Man on the Moon and emotional sincerity in Everybody Hurts. To me the core songs of the album are Try not to Breathe, New Orleans Instrumental No.1 and Sweetness Follows. Try not to Breathe is a surprisingly life affirming song about the right to die. The lyrics on this album are insanely good (and heartbreaking).

I will hold my breath until all these shivers subside

The basis of the song is a (unsurprisingly) melodic bass line, lead guitar and rhythm guitar. The simple main riff / theme gets at some point repeated by all three. It is a good example how, despite the orchestral parts of this album, it is very much grounded in folk music. New Orleans Instrumental No.1 is Berry on bass, Mills on Organ and Buck playing electric guitar with some weird effect, which made me google the song in frustration as I could not figure out which instrument was played. The bass line of Sweetness Follows is played on cello and added to it is the long sustained electric guitar from Country Feedback, organ and acoustic guitar. It creates a perfect atmosphere of sadness and distance. And the lyrics are super depressing.

It's these little things, they can pull you under
Live your life filled with joy and thunder
Yeah, yeah, we were all together
Lost in our little lives

Of course it is my favourite song from the album.

While the previous three songs might be a perfect summation of this album, the last three, Man on the Moon, Nightswimming and Find the River are simply the best REM have ever written. Man on the Moon, the favourite of most of the members is a perfect REM song, like Gardening at Night and Fall on Me. It is built on a slide guitar riff by Berry, that Buck extended upon and has great backing vocals in the chorus. Nightswimming, built on a simple piano piece from Mills is a perfect example of less is more. At it's core it is just piano and voice, with perfect lyrics about being nostalgic for the innocent times of youth. Find the River underscores the folk music feel of the album, with the melodica and river metaphors. It could have gone cliche easily, but somehow ends up in beauty.

Shout outs:

  • In the third verse of The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite Stipe mispronounces Dr. Seuss as Dr. Zeus and giggles at his mistake in the chorus. It is one of my favourite music moments, especially considering the heaviness of the album in general.

  • Everybody Hurts was my favourite song when I was 14 (and the song which taught me finger picking). Now, 38 and cynical, the emotional sincerity of it is sometimes hard to swallow. Especially as the whole arrangement of it, strings and all, underscores it.

  • REM are really good in using an organ. It appears on several songs on this album, and they used it frequently throught their career. To me it is a fundamental to the sound of REM as Bucks mandolin.

  • The string arrangements are perfect on each song and are done by John Paul Jones.

  • Closing thoughts: This was a hard album to talk about. I do not have the musical knowledge to adequately express how great it is and my emotional attachment to it makes it hard for me to listen to the songs in an analytical way. This is the one album every record collection needs, even if you don't like REM or alternative rock. Like, if you don't have it in your record collection I WILL judge you. The next album is Monster, the one always found in used records racks, symbolising simultaneously the highest point of commercial success and decline of REM.

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