1. R.E.M. – Automatic for the People

cd cover 1. R.E.M. – Automatic for the People

Three months ago I started this countdown, and now I’m at number one. R.E.M. is my favorite band, as I’ve mentioned already. This album is R.E.M. at it’s peak. Out of Time has some incredible songs on it, and other albums have some great, great, great songs on it. Document has It’s the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine and The One I Love, Lifes Rich Pageant has Superman and Fall on Me, Green is filled with quality… and things changed quite a bit with Monster [which I love], and continued to change through New Adventures in Hi-Fi [which should have been on this list.. that album is amazing], Up [again, excellent], and Reveal… For the record, Murmur, Reckoning, and Fables of the Reconstruction also rule, in their own particular ways.. But of all the R.E.M. albums that exist, Automatic for the People is my favorite, and has the most memory and emotion attached to it.

R.E.M. albums tend to have a theme to them… some themes more apparent than others. Document has been described as “a backlash against 80’s Reagan-era imperialism”, Green focuses on political/environmental issues, and self-empowerment. Out of Time I’ve talked about at length already, but could be summed up as “love, loss, and lonliness”… With Automatic for the People, the themes are far more dark, sombre, and melancholy. They deal with aging, pain, death, loss… but they manage to do so with a feeling of support, optimism, and hope that leaves you feeling uplifted rather than destroyed… and in so doing they’ve created something beautiful.

Let’s look back at the things I said I liked about the past 24 albums:

  1. Singability – This album is filled with singable songs that nicely flow between genres: You’ve got everything from the slow, rich sounding songs like Star Me Kitten, Everybody Hurts, and Nightswimming to the fast, harder-edged songs like Ignoreland and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite. I’ve mentioned that I enjoy singing along to songs that count, but I think my favorite thing is to sing along to fast songs. Examples: Barenaked Ladies – One Week, Blues Traveler – Hook, and number of Eminem songs (Kill You and the Dre combo Forgot About Dre top that list), and of course, the ultimate: R.E.M.’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine). Well, this album has The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight, that features a fairly rapidly sung chorus that took me some time to figure out (“Call me when you try to wake her up.“). This album also has Find the River and Sweetness Follows, These two songs, plus Pearl Jam’s Indifference and Guster’s What You Wish For are listened to and sung along with by far the most. So Singability? check.
  2. Playability – This album is not difficult to play. When I started learning how to play the guitar, I picked a song, What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?, to learn how to play. In learning the chords for that song (D, A, G ,B, E) I was quickly able to (very roughly) play along with a number of songs off of Automatic for the People. Each song had a few new chords for me to learn, and by going through this album, I was able to learn quite a bit without it being horribly frustrating. The plus is that I still enjoy playing along to many of these songs now. If I had any piano talent, I’d want to learn Nightswimming. Playability? check.
  3. Lyrical Poetry – Again, check. I’d take Sweetness Follows and just print the lyrics and call it perfect.
  4. Good Album Cover – I really like this album cover. First off, it’s distinctive, and you can recognize it from a distance. That I like. It reminds me of Dark Side of the Moon that way. The story behind the the name: Weaver D’s, a restaurant in Athens, Georgia (R.E.M.’s hometown, as well as home for the B-52s and Vic Chestnut) has as its slogan “Automatic for the People”. He seems like a good guy.
  5. Harmony – Mike Mills never fails. He blends in so perfectly you sometimes don’t even realize he’s there. check.

So yeah.. this album is very good. I’ve done my best to expose as many people as possible to it, and most have agreed that it is excellent.. even my Mom. (as a matter of fact, I was listening to it back in the day, and she came into the room and remarked that this music was very good. So I bought her the album)

Drive – The first song on the album instantly hits us with the tone of the album. It’s dark and haunting. It also introduces another theme (I think ) that gets played out here and there throughout the album. It’s like a backlash against the grunge movement that was huge as this album came out (’92). You think Grunge, you think anger, frustration, and defiance all flooding towards apathy and eventually death/suicide. And then throw in sex and drugs, because it’s still rock -n- roll. Anyway, here you have a song that presents some of those standard themes: “Hey kids, rock and roll, nobody tells you where to go.” and later “Hey, kids, where are you? Nobody tells you what to do.”. But the lyrics are in jarring contrast to the music, and the way the words are delivered. It’s a slow, ominous death march of a song, with monotonous, deadpan singing. It’s as though the life had been sucked out of the singer… An ironic intro that kinda says (to me) “okay, this is where you’re/we’re at, and we’re about to show you where it’s going to lead you/us”. I think the video reinforces that idea. In case you’ve never seen it (which almost all of you probably haven’t, as it got very little air time), it’s a black and white video that focuses on a huge crowd at a concert, and Michael Stipe is crowd surfing, and Peter Buck striking typical “rocker” poses with his guitar, only it’s slowed way down to match with the slow, sombre tone of the song, so it almost looks like waves rolling back and forth on the shore. All obviously made to look ironic.

One of my friends from back when I worked at the greenhouse, Brent, called this song “that clock song”, because it contains the line “tick, tock, tick, tock”.

Try Not to Breathe – Death. An old man or woman, who realizes they’re at the end, and pretty much wants to be dead, so they can be remembered for what they were, not the fading image they’ve become. It contains the following lines:

    I will try not to breathe.   This decision is mine.   I have lived a full life  and these are the eyes   that I want you to remember.    ...    I will try not to burden you,  I can hold these inside.  I will hold my breath  until all these shivers subside.  Just look in my eyes

The “shiver” mentioned could be connected to the repeated line : “I need something to fly over my grave again.” There is that superstition that says an involuntary shiver/shudder is caused if someone walks over (or if a bird flies over) where your grave will someday be.

The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite – This song is probably the least gloomy/dark song on the album… and sounds the lightest/most upbeat of them as well. It plays off of the music of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” kinda. That was the idea, anyway. (The single includes R.E.M. singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, and it’s excellent.) The song itself is about a homeless dude spending the night in a phone booth, waiting for a call. The fastly-sung, fairly indistinguishable chorus lyrics are “Call me when you try to wake her up.“. Here’s some more lyrics:

  This here is the place I will be staying.  There isn't a number. you can call the pay phone.  Let it ring a long, long, long, long time.  If I don't pick up, hang up, call back, let it ring some more.  If I don't pick up, pick up... the sidewinder sleeps, sleeps, sleeps in a coil

So, he’s staying in a phone booth which has no number (address). The sidewinder, which is a type of snake, refers to the wire of the phone, wrapped up nicely in that spiral coil.”I can always sleep standing up. sung towards the end refers to sleeping in that phone booth.

Everybody Hurts – So, this song has been used by just about everyone to convey some sort of emotion. It’s an excellent song, and I’ve become one of the million sad souls that have made it a personal, inspirational dealie. It doesn’t really need any explanation. I do have an aside though: There was an episode of Edthat used this song: Warren went out for the wrestling team, and got his ass completely kicked at the tryouts, and they played this song while it was happening, and it was the funniest thing I’d seen in a very long time.

New Orleans Instrumental No. 1 – In case you’re wondering, there is a New Orleans Instrumental No. 2. It’s on the Automatic Box Set. Not much to be said about this song, except that it has no words, and that there’s an extended edition of it that I like quite a bit as well.

Sweetness Follows – This is my favorite song on the album. It’s about dealing with death, loss, pain, etc, but I find it to be one of the most inspiring, uplifting songs on the album. Read these lyrics:

  It's these little things, they can pull you under.  Live your life filled with joy and thunder.  Yeah, yeah we were altogether  Lost in our little lives.  Oh, but sweetness follows

So after all that, sweetness still follows. I find that idea terribly uplifting. I listen to this song all the time. Anything more I’d say would prolly just cheapen the song.

Monty Got a Raw Deal – “Monty” refers to Montgomery Clift, an stage and film actor of the late ’30’s through the mid ’60’s. Troubled throughout much of his life (an isolated childhood, homosexuality, and medical problems leading to massive drug and alcohol addiction), this talented star died young, and is now more or less forgotten. You can read his biography to learn more about him.

Ignoreland – A slight departure from the theme of the album, this song is a high-powered rant against the Reagan and Bush government. See the lyrics:

  These bastards stole their power from the victims of the us v. them years,  Wrecking all things virtuous and true.  The undermining social democratic downhill slide into abysmal  Lost lamb off the precipice into the trickle down runoff pool.  They hypnotized the summer, nineteen seventy-nine.  Marched into the capital brooding duplicitous, wicked and able, media-ready,  Heartless, and labeled. super u.s. citizen, super achiever,  Mega ultra power dosing. relax.  Defense, defense, defense, defense. yeah, yeah, yeah.  Yeah, yeah, yeah. ignoreland. yeah, yeah, yeah. ignoreland.    The information nation took their clues from all the sound-bite gluttons.  Nineteen eighty, eighty-four, eighty-eight, ninety-two too, too.  How to be what you can be, jump jam junking your energies.  How to walk in dignity with throw-up on your shoes  They amplified the autumn, nineteen seventy-nine.  Calculate the capital, up the republic my skinny ass.  T.v. tells a million lies. the paper's terrified to report  Anything that isn't handed on a presidential spoon,  I'm just profoundly frustrated by all this. so, fuck you, man.  Yeah, yeah, yeah. ignoreland. yeah, yeah, yeah. ignoreland.    If they weren't there we would have created them. maybe, it's true,  But I'm resentful all the same. someone's got to take the blame.  I know that this is vitriol. no solution, spleen-venting,  But I feel better having screamed. don't you?  They desecrated winter, nineteen seventy-nine.  Capital collateral. brooding duplicitous, wicked and able, media-ready,  Heartless, and labeled. super u.s. citizen, super achiever,  Mega ultra power dosing. relax.  Defense, defense, defense, defense. yeah, yeah, yeah.  

An interesting side-note is that working on this song, in its various points of mixing and instrumentation, lead to the sound that became the focus of their next album, Monster. (Fuzz Bass, hella distortion, etc.)

Star Me Kitten – Originally “Fuck Me Kitten”, until the name change to avoid an “Parental Advisory” sticker, this song is about love gone bad… I think. The lyrics are fairly cryptic, but there are a few things that stand out. Two people used to be close, but now aren’t (“I’ve changed the locks, and you can’t have one.“, “You. me. we used to be on fire.I’m in your possession. So, fuck me kitten.“). I really love the way this song sounds, very slow, low, and soft.

Man on the Moon – If people didn’t know this song was about Andy Kauffman before, they prolly did after the movie with the same name came out a few years back (R.E.M. did the soundtrack for it). So stuff about Elvis, and Wrestling, etc. that’s all referring to Andy (and features Michael’s pretty good Elvis impression).

Nightswimming – This song is beautiful. It just is. When I was working in Holland, I had this song playing, and my boss Nate turned to me after a while and said “I was wondering why all of a sudden I was feel all nostalgic, then I realized this song was playing. It really does seem to have that affect. The song itself seems to deal with that idea… looking back at the past (your own childhood) when things were simpler/less complicated, and the little things were important. Here’s this quote from Mike Mills:

It’s something we used to do back in Athens. Twenty or thirty of us would go skinny-dipping at two in the morning–you know, build a fire and get naked. There was a very real possibility of the sheriff coming up. We were drinking and doing who knows what, and we could have gone to jail. Whereas now, no one does it any more, except once in a while we take a friend up there to show them. And even if you do swim, it’s still not like it used to be, because no one knows about it, and there’s really no chance of anyone coming down and bothering you.

I love the references to the photograph to remind you of the event:

  The photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago,  Turned around backwards so the windshield shows.  Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse.  

We come to the final song, my other favorite on the album, and one that sends it off on an uplifting tone, I think, Find the River. I love the video for this song. It’s just a black and white clip of an older man and his dog hiking to the river. The chorus ends the first two times with the line: “This life that pass before my eyes. Nothing is going my way.” But the very end of the song ends with “All of this is coming your way“. I see the song as a person looking at their entire life like a river flowing. When they’re in the middle of everything, their consumed by it, (“You have to go to task in the city, where people drown and people serve.“) and don’t really enjoy anything (“None of this is going my way“). But when you’re given the chance to stand back from it all, life suddenly doesn’t seem as bad, and you’re not only happy about your own life, but excited for those that come after you. “All of this is coming your way.”

2 thoughts on “1. R.E.M. – Automatic for the People

  1. This is an amazing, solid album. I’ve found that REM albums in general tend to be ones that could just be played over and over and over… Automatic is definitely one of those. This album transcends REM’s other music, and just about any other music of the time–it is an album that will be remembered for many years to come. There may have been more “groundbreaking” albums around the same time, but this one stands out as probably the most excellent, well-rounded albums of its time, or any time.

    Great choice, Ron!

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