When you think of the sound of the 1990s, you might think of Kurt Cobain, the burgeoning hip-hop scene, or the famous Britpop showdown: Blur or Oasis? The decade effectively belonged to another set of rivals: R.E.M. and U2.
R.E.M.’s crowning work, Automatic For The People turns twenty five this year, and has been reissued. To celebrate we look back on the album that defined alternative rock.
The pressure on R.E.M. to deliver with their eighth album was huge. Their previous album Out Of Time did the unthinkable; become a smash hit that held onto core fans whilst attracting new ones, and introducing the band to a whole new generation.
R.E.M. had always paid their way with the label. Warner understood that they were well respected and had a dedicated fanbase (their roots being in college radio). They could not foresee that R.E.M. would patiently become the biggest rock band in America – through a chirpy tune played on mandolin. This was the world MTV had made possible.
However the musical landscape was shifting away from the adult contemporary sound R.E.M. had embodied on Out of Time. The kids in flannel had arrived, and with it Nevermind – released mere months after Out of Time. Rather than compete with the high energy of grunge, the band made the most mature, pensive and moving album of their career.
Automatic For The People, arriving just one year after their prior LP, serves as a companion piece. While the soft cover to Out of Time suggested bright sunshine and an album full of energy and collaboration, the stark colours of Automatic follows that sun setting, and eventually the gloaming of a new day.
Perhaps it was after the huge success of ‘Losing My Religion’ that Stipe finally realised he was a good ten years older than most of his fans. The days of arched, challenging agit-rock were gone for good.
While downright maudlin at times, the strength of these tunes distract from their pre-occupation with faded glory. Many albums have covered this ground, and it is sheer good humour that prevents the album from curdling into self-pity.
The honeyed power chords are gone, and in their place, hushed folk and country. Quirky they are still: ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight’, a bizarre corruption of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ carries on where ‘Shiny Happy People’ left off. Meanwhile, the stargazing country of ‘Man On The Moon’ is at once anthemic and intractable.
At their darkest, ‘Drive’ emobided the sort of stark, authoritarian opener that would be revisited with ‘How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us’ on New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
At their most beautiful, on the track ‘Nightswimming’, Stipe reflects on his youth and the time that separates them – nothing but a faded photo, taken years ago, to tether them. Bittersweet as it is – this is no tragedy. Automatic may be an album for middle age – but it’s also one for recovery.
Automatic is also about acceptance – and nowhere is it more powerful, and empowering, than on the soulful ballad ‘Everybody Hurts’. The writing here is notably less complex – and the song enjoys a touch-and-go relationship with hardcore fans.
However this simplicity is intended, and surprising. This is R.E.M. actively reaching out to the listener – and it succeeds in delivering a simple message: It’ll be alright.
Michael Stipe had never written to accommodate an audience, and his decision to do so this once only strengthens the sentiment. The talent shows may have chewed this one up – but the beauty of ‘Everybody Hurts’ is very real.
Looking back at Automatic For The People you can see the roots springing from it; to arty introverts like Grizzly Bear and the disquiet of The Suburbs by Arcade Fire. Yet the power of these songs has not diminished in the slightest. This is an album for anyone who may one day turn thirty; and live to tell the tale.