29th Favorite: Automatic For The People, by R.E.M.

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Automatic For The People. R.E.M.
1992, Warner Bros. Producer: Scott Litt and R.E.M.
Purchased, 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Automatic For The People is a record that sounds a lot like growing older while retaining your old-school punk identity. Soft yet intense songs take on death, reminiscing and aging parents, yet it’s not a downer by any means. The band plays relatively few traditional rock instruments, and brings in an orchestra, to boot, but the songs sound fresh and somehow R.E.M maintains its independent, DIY spirit throughout.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I have a distinct memory of being a kid, probably about 7 years old, and hearing my mom and grandma discussing a woman whose husband had died, and that he was “only 42.” Now, in my elementary school years – particularly on weekends and in the summers – my mom and sisters and I spent a lot of time together at my grandma’s house. My dad would be home doing weekend car-repair or engine-building or some other manly art whose seductive qualities of oily aromas and physical domination over metal and internal combustion never held sway over me as he might have hoped. Even his enticement of a wad of Beech-Nut chewing tobacco of my own for the day couldn’t draw me to the garage, such was my fondness for trips to grandma’s house with my mom and sisters.

While my sisters and I played fun games, my mom and grandma would sit at Gram’s kitchen table and talk all afternoon, seemingly nonstop. It felt exhausting, so I stayed out of there. Sometimes my aunt or great-aunt would join them, and then it would be loud and exhausting, as they never provided a break in their patter to allow another speaker to enter, and so everyone had to use sheer volume to join in and make a point. These conversations were too loud to pique my interest (every kid knows the good stuff is always spoken about quietly), and their themes were too disjointed to follow in any case. A good conversation requires at least one person to be listening at least some of the time, and this never seemed to be part of the dynamics of the group’s discourse. So I never understood anything they talked about.

So the talk of the dead husband at “only 42” could have been about someone from church, a mother they knew, a character on The Guiding Light, or something they heard on The Fred Williams Show, the only person keeping WAHT-1510 afloat in the Lebanon, PA, AM radio marketplace dominated by WLBR-1270. Whoever it was, I had no idea why they kept speaking of 42 years old as if it was young. It was not young – it was ancient! I knew from reading the backs of my football and baseball cards that nobody who was any good was ever older than about 34. Sure, George Blanda played in the NFL into his 40s, but he’d stopped playing QB long ago and by then was only a kicker – not a real player. Once you were too old to play, you were better off dead, I figured.

As a now-50 year old, I would be saddened to hear that someone died at 42. (A real person, I mean, not a Guiding Light character.) However, I don’t think of 42 years as “young.” Improved diet and exercise has made 40+ year old athletes more common today than in the 70s, but the best of the best remain those in their 20s: i.e. Young Athletes. As for rock/pop musicians, it’s a similar story.

But this blog isn’t so much about artists as it is about albums. So if it’s rare for athletes and musical artists to be good into their forties (and I recognize the slippery nature of the word “good,” but I’m just going to leave it there), I wonder: is it rare for albums to be good into their 40s? Let’s take a look.

First of all, how to tell how “old” an album is? I don’t think it makes sense to look at the age of the artists. People and music mature at different rates. The Beatles made Please Please Me and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (and all the records in between) in the span of 5 years, so the age of the musicians (early 20s to late 20s, in The Beatles’ case) doesn’t really correlate to the maturity of the music. I want to look at albums that are the musical equivalent of a 40 year old. So I need a way to compare peoples’ ages to albums’ ages, like folks do with their dogs and cats.

The average human lifespan, according to the googles, is 79 years. However, I don’t think all those years are really rockin’ years. I’d say the rockin’ years are really only between 15 and 65, giving us a rockin’ lifespan of 50 years. (Thirty years ago, the rockin’ years topped out at about 40, but since then the older generations, having grown up with rock music, have remained rockin’ longer. Plus there’s the fact that rock music is now music for the elderly, so 65 may actually be young.)

Now – how to convert those 50 human years to album years? Well, first we have to see what the average number of albums released is for any given band. I selected 30 rock bands somewhat randomly, meaning the bands that randomly popped into my head. I recognize this is not the definition of random, but this experiment isn’t really the definition of an experiment, either, so big whoop. I also chose bands, not solo artists, because solo artists put out all kinds of weird shit on record sometimes that can artificially inflate their numbers. (In the case of Hendrix, Petty and Costello, I only included albums recorded with bands.) Of the 30 bands I selected, the average number of studio albums released was 10.

So 10 albums per 50 rockin’ years equals 5 human years per album year. A band’s 3rd album? Like a 15 year old. Their 15th? Like a 75 year old. Athletes’ peak years of 20 or 30 would then be equivalent to bands’ 4th or 6th albums. This is unlikely to be true for all artists, but just like athletes, bands’ production matures at varying rates. If you’ve ever had a kid play youth sports, you’re familiar with the situation of the 7 year old whose skills are far beyond his playmates’, yet who by 15 years old is just one of the pack and no longer superior. Similarly, some bands have an awesome debut record and never come close again.

So, then, are there any 40 year old albums that are excellent? I mean MVP-caliber: a record operating at Tom Brady-level, not George Blanda-level. Well, there’s at least one on my list: Automatic For The People, R.E.M.’s 8th full-length, studio album. And not only is it a 40-year old album in age, but it sounds very much like middle-age, as well, a record whose excellence lies not so much in energetic, innovative style, but in its richness and depth. It’s the sound of the confident yet self-aware and reflective nature of one’s 40s, without the anxiety of weight gain, hair loss, crazy pre-teens in the house, crazier parents on the phone, looming college bills, declining basketball skills, and everything else negative on the other side of the hill.

I was into R.E.M. from the moment I saw them on Late Night with David Letterman in late 1983.

They were fascinating, with a bouncy, bass-driven, jangly guitar sound and a singer who was unintelligible but compelling. When the band talked to Dave, after they played the hit “Radio Free Europe,” the singer shyly sat on the riser, then they played a song “too new to be named,” the wonderful “So. Central Rain.” I loved them. However, I was going through a musical identity crisis at the time, trying to get into the hard rock and heavy metal sound that was entrancing rural, white, male Northern U.S. teenagers at the time. I didn’t love it, but I wanted to fit in and didn’t want to seem weird, so I kept my secret love for R.E.M. hidden while claiming a fondness for more “acceptable” hard rock artists1. But I always bought their cassettes.

Automatic For The People was released in the fall of 1992, a year after Nirvana’s Nevermind brought college rock to the mainstream. It seemed like everything in rock music was now big and loud, with distorted guitars, howling vocals, pumped up bass and dance-beat drums. R.E.M. had, frankly, lost me a little bit with their 1991 mega-smash album Out of Time, the first album of theirs that didn’t play on a constant loop on my cassette player. Still, I went out and bought Automatic For The People.

And I was disappointed. Where were the jangly guitars? That strong, lead bass? The odd, moaning vocals? This album was all slow songs, mandolins, piano and orchestra. I put it aside. (At least it didn’t have any songs with a guest rapper, something from Out of Time that really confounded me, but that now seems quaintly nifty.) It wasn’t until I revisited it a few years later that it became one of my favorites.

Right off the bat, the album sounds different than anything else happening at the time, and different from what R.E.M. had previously delivered. “Drive” is a slow acoustic song referencing a 70s glam-rock hit that builds to crunching guitar backed by strings, yet somehow manages to put me in a mind of childhood.

It sounds rather menacing, and sets the trend for the album of simple songs that build intensity gradually by adding instrumentation and sounds. You might not notice, but when Pete Buck’s electric guitar pierces the gentleness at 2:00, and violins begin furiously sawing, it’s suddenly a far more intense song than that opening acoustic guitar signaled. As for lyrics, I learned as an R.E.M. fan from the beginning never to worry too much about meaning. Stipe’s lyrics are all about feeling, and this one feels like an older guy wistfully reminding kids to use their youth wisely. Plus, for years I thought he referenced infrequent Bugs Bunny nemesis Blacque Jacque Shellacque, which I loved. (He didn’t.)

It was an unusual song in general, and very unusual as a single. The entire album is unusual, clearly accomplished by a band doing exactly what they want, and it’s this spirit of self-determination that, to me, gives the album a truly punk spirit – even though few punk songs are waltzes that prominently feature a triangle, like the next song, “Breathe.”

Singer Michael Stipe has said the lyrics are about his dying grandmother, and her strength at the end of her life. But the instrumentation and the build of the song make it not sad and mournful but uplifting. Bassist Mike Mills’s backing vocals (“Something to fly!”) at 1:56 mix with drummer Bill Berry’s (“I have seen things/You will never see”) and give the song a touch that elevate it. Buck’s distorted (backwards?) guitar at 2:20 provide dark color, and as the song moves toward its conclusion it truly sounds like the most uplifting song imaginable about a person dying.

These themes and songs were quite unlike anything else in 1992, and I can see why it took me a few years to catch on. It’s a mature record, a 40-year old record, and I needed to be closer to 40 to get it. Closer to a time when one’s parents may be struggling with their health, when a song like the lovely reflection on loss “Sweetness Follows” has more resonance than it might to a typical 25 year old.

For a mellow album, Automatic For The People has quite a lot of feedback and distortion from guitarist Buck. There’s a feedback “solo” from 1:56 to 2:25 that is haunting and beautiful. Stipe’s voice is strong and charismatic, and while it was always Buck’s guitar and Mills’s bass that kept me coming back to R.E.M. over the years, this album is really a showcase for Stipe’s singing. The harmony vocals by Mills are also terrific.

But the album’s not all slow songs about death and loss. From the time Stipe branched out from his early word-salad lyrics, the band has had political songs (“The Flowers of Guatemala,” “Exhuming McCarthy,” “World Leader Pretend“, etc.) and on the rousing “Ignoreland,” they issue a call to action for the 1992 national elections.

This upbeat rock song was one of the songs I liked when the album was first released. It has the characteristic Berry tom-happy drumming, and Mills all-around-the-neck bass line. The rhythm section is supplemented by producer Scott Litt on funky clavinet (heard about 1:40) and harmonica. Buck plays a simple riff, without his usual jangle, that complements Stipe’s (admitted) spleen-venting2. It’s got that upbeat, driving R.E.M. style that I’ve always loved. Similarly, the rather crazy and somewhat mindless but absolutely fun “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” has their early upbeat style as well.

It’s one of Michael Stipe’s, and the entire band’s, least favorite R.E.M. songs, but I like it. I like the seeming nonsense lyrics (which may be about living in a cheap motel), Mike Mills’s organ, and the harmony vocals throughout. Mills and Berry are two of my favorite harmony singers3 in rock. Producer Litt uses their vocals as an instrument on the subtle ode to physical affectionStar Me Kitten,” extending the pairs oh’s and ah’s into unending notes – an homage to an old 10cc song. The band does great stuff without vocals, too, on “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1.”

The upbeat songs are the exceptions on Automatic For The People, however. Instead of loud songs with thumping beats, the band here finds power in a smoldering energy that builds to a satisfying conclusion. “Man On The Moon,” one of the biggest hits on the record, is a lilting country-western tune that bursts into a full-throated, sing-along chorus. It’s an ode to the surreal 70s comedian Andy Kaufman. In another hit, “Everybody Hurts4,” Stipe’s lyrics hearten the discouraged while the simple song swells into an orchestral storm. (All the strings on the album were written and arranged by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, by the way.)

The record is all about subtlety. It celebrates the gray and undistinguished facets in a world where so many wish to see black and white. This may be why it appealed more to the aging me than it did to the younger me. The perspective gained from several more trips around the sun can enhance the world around you. It can put you in a place where a song like “Nightswimming” can move you nearly to tears.

The simple, circular piano of Mike Mills carries Stipe’s lyrics that somehow conjure both the excitement of childhood and the melancholy of reflecting on those happy memories. Each verse builds gently, adding strings until an an oboe solo and full orchestra enter. It’s the kind of song that I would’ve hated as a kid watching R.E.M. on David Letterman in 1983. But as a middle aged man, it trips a certain nostalgia trigger – not nostalgia as in “this is the music of my youth,” but as described in Don Draper’s Carousel pitch on Mad Men: “a place we ache to go again.” It’s a powerful song (and Mike Mills’s favorite R.E.M. song, according to his Dan Rather interview.)

It’s true the album has all this slow, orchestral, emotional music. But yet, to my ears, it retains that punk/alternative spirit of “we’re doing this our way.” The songs don’t sound like a band just decided to write the same old shit but add some strings. The ode to 50s screen star, and tragic man of his era, Montgomery Clift, “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” uses mandolin, accordion and a thunking rhythm to support a catchy melody. Like the rest of the record, it doesn’t sound like anything else in pop/rock from 1992 – it just sounds like R.E.M. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record, and one of two songs about Montgomery Clift that I love (the other being “The Right Profile,” by The Clash.)

Ah, middle age. It’s an astonishing place to find oneself, with more past stretching out behind you than future that lies ahead. You look over your shoulder and it can seem like that’s where all the best stuff lies. But Automatic For The People is a middle-aged record (40 years old in human years, remember?) that shows it’s possible to maintain excellence as you age and grow. In the final song on the record, “Find The River,” lyricist Stipe seems to make the point that all there is to life, really, is experience and memories. Maybe the question of whether 40 year olds can be excellent is moot; perhaps experience and memories are where “excellence” lies as our personal river approaches the ocean that awaits us all. (Or maybe that’s just old-man-talk!)

Track Listing:
“Drive”
“Try Not to Breathe”
“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”
“Everybody Hurts”
“New Orleans Instrumental No. 1”
“Sweetness Follows”
“Monty Got A Raw Deal”
“Ignoreland”
“Star Me Kitten”
“Man On The Moon”
“Nightswimming”
“Find The River”

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2 Responses to 29th Favorite: Automatic For The People, by R.E.M.

  1. Love it!

  2. I love it. I previously tried to send a comment, but I got an error, so I don’t know if you got it. I remember those fun games at Gram’s, those loud, loud, ever-louder conversations, and I don’t know if I ever knew this album, but I like lots of the songs. And now I’ll learn more of them.

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