REM – Automatic For The People review

Secret Meeting score: 95

by Philip Moss

Seminal albums are strange beasts. It’s hard to remember a time before they existed, it’s hard to imagine a world where they don’t exist and it’s hard to comprehend how many precious moments you’ve spent with them. But everything about Automatic For The People is seminal: the artwork, the title, Anton Corbijn’s photography. It’s the moment when all the threads came together for REM. The gothic tales from the south got just that bit more haunting, the harmonies crept that bit further into your conscious and, most importantly, the songs got that bit better.

Opening with the acoustic driven Drive, we have to remember the context of the record’s release in 1992. Nirvana had just exploded, Britpop hadn’t happened and REM were coming off the back of their multi-Grammy winning, multi-million selling record, Out Of Time. They were America’s biggest band and the anticipation to follow up the shiny, happy pop of their predecessor was tangible. So… the slow, chiming, acoustic drone of its opener came out of left field. But who cares. Like all great writers, the words are left open to interpretation and Stipe keeps shtum as to their meanings. As Drive slowly builds, cycling round and round Peter Buck’s acoustic loop, Stipe’s metaphorical lyrics of rebellion (“Hey kids! Where are you? Nobody tells you what to do!”) unfurl that – despite no links to the blossoming grunge movement in sound – maybe this record is more Cobain influenced than you may first think.

Perfect throughout, Scott Litt’s production blissfully balances the nuances of Stipe’s impeccable vocal takes with the shimmering murmur of the band. Musically, Star Me Kitten floats by like a dream despite its lyrics being in total juxtaposition as two lovers’ nightmarish moments unfold, and Find The River is the type of blissful ballad that any songwriter worth their salts wish they had written. Man On The Moon is a bombastic slab of pop music that was used to soundtrack Milos Forman’s hit film of the same name, starring Jim Carrey. Sweetness Follows is a desperate allegory which questions the effects of family loss, reminding the listener that no matter how tough life gets, live it “filled with joy and wonder”.

Ignoreland (the record’s most overtly politicised moment) fizzes and rips with Stipe desperate for “someone to take the blame” – be that the Republican politicians he’s so famously stood opposed to his entire life, or the mainstream media who peddle sugar-sweetened propaganda to the masses. Thus, setting his newly found mass audience a challenge: to be independent, free thinkers; to avoid the ‘automatic’, obvious choices presented by the mass media, business and government; and, to avoid becoming a stereotype – a message that is as vitally important 25 years on as it ever has been.

In contrast to the serious tone of much of the record, the most throwaway moment turned out to be one of its biggest hits – the super accessible, goof pop of The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite. Sidewinder is everything a great pop single should be: hooky, fun and full of fantastic crossover imagery. The song also included one of Litt’s most inspired decisions: to leave Stipe’s Elvis impression and subsequent laugh in the mix, which truly lent itself to its crossover nature and allowed school kids across the planet to jump on its ear worm chorus and Dr Seuss imagery. A truly great pop moment. However, one which very nearly did not make the final track listing – the band questioned whether its jovial nature fit in, surrounded by songs much more serious in tone.

Despite being a record packed full of beautiful moments, the pinnacle is Nightswimming. A quiet night’s tale full of fear and regret, of innocence and reflection, and, of a young man – Stipe? – isolated, with the hopeless dream of being comfortable in his own skin. In the studio, Stipe set the band a challenge. He presented the lyrics first (REM’s usual songwriting process involved the band completing the musical tracks, before Stipe retreated with almost complete demo recordings to slave over and craft his lyrics) and asked the individual members to contribute music fitting of his lyrical masterpiece. After various rejections, which went onto form the musical backdrops for other classics on the record, Stipe settled on Mike Mills’ haunting piano piece which is topped off – along with the three other tracks he contributed towards – perfectly by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones’ celestial orchestral score.

Now it wouldn’t be fair of me, or a true review of the record, if I were not to mention my least favourite song, Everybody Hurts. It’s REM’s absolute radio mainstay, murdered on as many karaoke machines every night as it gets played at funerals. I skip it every single time I listen to the record now, but it is a truly seminal piece of songwriting. I was at primary school when Automatic was released, meaning I heard it on enough car journeys as a seven-year-old that every single nuance is engrained in the depths of my memory. It’s a wonderful song. And one that will still be racking up millions of radio plays a year when Stipe et al are putting together the reissue for its 50th anniversary in 2042.