Weekend Listening: Automatic For The People by R.E.M.
Listen while you read (volume may be loud):
Album: Automatic For The People by R.E.M.
Released: 5 October 1992 from Warner Bros.
Recommended If You Like: Classic rock, alt rock, R.E.M., complex albums you can listen to all the way through
Notable tracks: “Everybody Hurts”, “Man On The Moon”, “Nightswimming”, also they’re all amazing
I’ve been saving this album as a Weekend Listening. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been saving it for when I needed a list-minute no-brainer or when I had no other inspiration–not because it’s not worthy, but because it’s so worthy that it almost seems too easy. (And if you’re a writer, you need those pocket topics that you can bust out on a moment’s notice. It’s a thing.)
I have not tired of Automatic for the People in twenty-four years.
(Goddamn, 24 years?!)
My dad bought me the cassette tape, I don’t know why–I know he loved R.E.M. and I guess he was trying to get ME into them? I was 9 when Automatic for the People came out and hadn’t yet been fully introduced to R.E.M. He didn’t actually give me the tape immediately because there are a couple of F-bombs and he was still trying to pretend that I had virgin ears. I still heard snatches of the album as he listened to it, though, and eventually I seized it for myself. I was enchanted by how the tape was clear yellow. I wore that tape out.
I remember my dad playing “Drive” on the guitar. Maybe other songs. My dad is an amazing guitarist and the intricacy of the guitar work on that song would have drawn him in. It’s a very My Dad song in sound and I love it, too; I love how it alternates between the quiet moments where the guitar picking can shine and the grand sweeping of swelling violins. The emotions evoked just by this first song really set up the experience for the rest of the album, which is largely a contemplation of death and thus on the heavy side.
The guitar on this whole album is fucking amazing, by the by. These are no three-chord wonders (not that R.E.M. ever is). I’m listening to “Try Not to Breathe” right now (what? I listen to these things while I write, this is a semi-professional operation, here) and the urgency of the song is punctuated by the sound of the guitar, the chords being struck hard enough to hear not just the notes but the movement of the strings and the pick.
To ease off the emotional punch of “Try Not to Breathe” (which is about assisted suicide), “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” is more upbeat, with a few lyrics that will make you crack a smile even if they’re a bit mystifying (even Mike Mills supposedly said “Half of the song is about somebody trying to get in touch with someone who can sleep on his floor. The other half – you’re on your own”). I disagree with Peter Buck about the song being too lightweight for Automatic For the People; it needed “Sidewinder” right there. Especially since the next song is “Everybody Hurts,” which can make me flat-out bawl in an instant. Too much heaviness there would have been emotionally a lot to deal with. It’s like Rob Gordon said about mix tapes–“You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch.”
This side (remember when albums had sides?) wraps up with “Sweetness Follows”, a heavy song that feels like a powerful current breaking around you. “It’s these little things, they can pull you under / live your life filled with joy and wonder” are some of the most perfect goddamn lyrics I’ve ever come across for what it feels like to be struggling in life but trying to make a go of it anyway. And despite the heaviness of the song, there is a hopeful sound overlaid. A sound like a cleansing rain at the end of a really shitty time. This song is cinematic, really: I can practically see a film in it, despite the lack of an overt story.
The second half of Automatic for the People starts off indignant and a bit angry. “Monty Got A Raw Deal” is about Montgomery Clift, a Hollywood leading man in the ’50s who had a car accident and became an addict, eventually dying an untimely death. “Ignoreland” is one of my favorite angry songs. It’s probably one of the most politically prescient songs for our current predicament, talking about the Reagan and Bush administrations and the effects of the political style of keeping a presidential thumb on the media and pushing defense and paranoia (barf). I love the lines “I’m just profoundly frustrated by all this / So, fuck you, man” and “I feel better having screamed, don’t you?” “Ignoreland” goes in and out of being my favorite song on the album and I was fucking thrilled that they played it when I saw them at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008.
I have to confess that I often skip the dreamy “Star Me Kitten” and I think it’s more out of habit than anything else (I didn’t love it as a kid, probably because I couldn’t make out the lyrics and I like to connect with songs on a lyrical level). I’m researching the song and I kind of love it now that I’m reading through the words; it has a 50’s prom kind of sound, a slow doo-wop vibe overlaid with lonely guitar licks. “Star Me Kitten” is about breaking up: “I’ve changed the locks, and you can’t have one” and “You, me, we used to be on fire”. It’s also about, I think, not being able to break up cleanly.
(Side note: The “Star” in the title refers to an asterisk, because the chorus is “fuck me kitten” but they didn’t want to use “fuck” in the title or call it “**** Me Kitten”.)
“Star Me Kitten” is the beginning of the end of the album, winding down into a contemplative, reflective mood. The song is a very adult moment, a new kind of angst mixed with resignation that the seemingly angry young man from “Ignoreland” might not be as familiar with.
“Man on the Moon.” I don’t have to talk much about this, I don’t think, even though I could write a whole post on its own about it–except to say: this song is narcotic to me. It doesn’t matter what’s going on, if this song comes on, I’m instantly at least 10 degrees calmer.
Also, Michael Stipe is a sexy beast in the video for “Man on the Moon.” Just. I also needed to say that. White button-down shirt, sleeves perfectly rolled up. Cowboy hat. Mix that with his post-punk liberal non-traditional masculinity and *fans self*.
I need to take five. I need a cigarette after that.
Automatic for the People ends strong with “Nightswimming,” another of my favorite songs, and “Find the River.” “Nightswimming” is a goddamn poem of nostalgia and freedom and the passage of time. “Find the River” is another song about death, but not about the moment of death–it’s about the journey there, which makes the song also about life. The nature imagery in the song suggests death not as tragic but as a natural end; the narrator of the song is talking to someone younger, telling them that they’re young now and they have “light years to go” but that he, the narrator, is not–he’s closer now, closer to getting to the end of his river. “Find the River” is an excellent capstone on an album that is partially a meditation on death because it brings some peace to its inevitability. The song leaves you with a sense of calm after an album that takes you on a pretty intense emotional journey.
I love the lack of morbidity in this album, considering the subject matter. There is sorrow, there is indignation, there is anger, there is hope. Automatic for the People is the stages of grief in an album. The title references a soul food restaurant–Weaver D’s in Athens, GA–which is appropriate, since the album itself is soul food; it also has a somewhat darker double entendre: death comes for everyone. It’s axiomatic, automatic for all people.
I have listened to Automatic for the People hundreds of times, but it still feels fresh to me. I’m a little weepy today as I write this, even; plunging into the depth of the songs still makes me emotional. This album has probably saved my life once or twice. It’s my favorite, forever.