R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People” Still Shines 30 Years Later

Thirty years on, R.E.M.’s album Automatic for the People stands out as the darkest star in the band’s voluminous catalog, preoccupied with death and the search for hope among the ruins.

Releasing the eclectic and minimal Automatic was an interesting move for R.E.M., who had enjoyed their greatest commercial success the previous year. Their 1991 album Out of Time, bolstered by the classical-art-inspired video for the catchy mandolin anthem “Losing My Religion,” went platinum four times over in the United States. Stations around the world were playing R.E.M. songs, a far cry from their beginning as a Georgia band that only got airplay on college stations. R.E.M. was one of the biggest acts in the world at that time, and fans wondered how they would follow up the outrageous success of Out of Time.

If Out of Time was like a non-stop weekend at an amusement park, then Automatic for the People was like waiting on the corner of a street in the old section of town, smoking your last cigarette in the pre-dawn dark, and waiting for your favorite bookstore to open.

Automatic‘s opening track, “Drive,” sets the mood for the entire album. Singer Michael Stipe delivered lines straight from the Rock and Roll Bible with a sardonic sadness that seemed to hamstring the entire musical genre. Never before had the words, “Hey, kids, rock and roll,” sounded so mournful as they did rumbling from singer Michael Stipe’s mouth. Rock and roll was dead and this was the liturgy.

Automatic is filled with songs about loss. “Sweetness Follows,” with its quiet buzzsaw cello line, addresses getting through the death of one’s parents. “Try Not to Breathe” was written about the death of Stipe’s grandmother. Stipe takes the role of someone on their deathbed, telling an unknown listener what “I want you to remember” about their life.

My favorite song on the album was never released as a single. “Monty Got A Raw Deal,” about the troubled late actor Montgomery Clift, revisits the mandolin-heavy structure of “Losing My Religion,” but makes it more urgent, somehow sadder. Bill Berry’s restrained drum work completes the heavy contemplative mood of the song, imparting more gravitas to a simple paradiddle than most drummers could achieve with a five-minute-long solo.

“Everybody Hurts” may be the most well-known song from Automatic for the People. A slow anthem of hope for the hopeless, Stipe howls his support, begging listeners to “hold on.” It is the most overtly positive song on the album and, perversely, one of the weakest. Within the context of the whole album, “Everybody Hurts” feels like an anomaly, the one song designed to be a hit single, a pillar of light in Automatic‘s miasma of sadness and the end of all things.

The celebration of the life of comedian Andy Kaufman, “Man On the Moon,” was a massive radio hit, and contains some of Stipe’s finest lyrics. “Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s,” Stipe sings toward the end of the song. I think about that line a lot, the humanity of it, how it implies a certain dispensation of grace from one person to another. And what are we as people that we can provide that kindness for one another? With all the implication in other songs that things get better, that single line sums up Automatic for the People.

Hope is where you find it.

Brave in the way it slapped back against the pop perfection of the record that made R.E.M. a legendarily popular band, Automatic for the People is one of the group’s finest albums. It is the beloved piece of jewelry that gets buried in the back of the drawer behind larger, clunkier pieces. There is joy when you rediscover it and realize it fits just as well now as it did when you first wore it.

It’s been thirty years since Automatic for the People was released. Dig it out and try it on again. It still fits.

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