A look back at Automatic for the People

R.E.M.’s eighth studio album, Automatic For The People, is repeatedly lauded as one of the group’s best.

It reached number two on the Billboard Top 200, and has sold over sixteen million copies internationally. It is a standard and deserving fixture on lists featuring the best music of the nineties.

Released in 1992, Automatic For The People deviated from the group’s standard sound. When it came out, the group was just beginning to experience commercial success. With their breakthrough album, Out of Time, R.E.M. established an upbeat, acoustic-based sound that integrated folk and pop elements. The track “Losing My Religion” exploded onto the popular music scene and netted the band three Grammys. A touch of country influence would carry over from Out of Time onto their next album, Automatic For The People.

According to Chris Epting, author of Led Zeppelin Crashed Here, the album’s unusual title comes from the name of a diner in Athens, Georgia, called Weaver D’s. A sign in front of the establishment reads, “Delicious Fine Foods – Automatic For The People.” The band name was chosen at random from a dictionary by vocalist Michael Stipe.

During the rehearsal sessions for Automatic For The People, the group experimented with switching up their instruments in search of a harsher rock and roll sound. When it came time to record, however, they returned to their original positions. Despite their intention, R.E.M. ended up with only a few rock-influenced tracks.

“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” is an up-tempo track with a bright chorus. “Man on the Moon” is an ambitious, tongue-in-cheek anthem that points out the arbitrariness of fame, and “Ignoreland” gives Stipe the opportunity to comment on politics in the context of a driving, half-irate rock track.

But that’s not what makes Automatic For The People stand out. It is the desolate, heart-breaking tracks that stick in our collective cultural memory, like the catchy but slow waltz, “Try Not To Breathe,” and “Sweetness Follows,” which addresses the death of loved ones. The addition of a string section, arranged by John Paul Jones, former bassist for Led Zeppelin, adds much to the album’s hazy, romantic atmosphere.

The centerpiece of this album, however, is the somber but sincere “Everybody Hurts.” Going on to become a top single, “Everybody Hurts” is a pensive, beautifully produced track that manages to avoid pretension while consoling the desperate.

The delicate arpeggios throughout are powerful in their restraint and a perfect compliment to Stipe’s vocals, which wax in intensity, peaking amidst an orchestral swell around the 2:20 mark.

Greg Sandow of EW explains, “It sounds like a gigantic arena transfiguration of a ’50s rock ballad, with Stipe’s voice pleading over triplets and massed strings, and surely will be played on radio for generations to come.”  The track is an exercise in balance. Like the album as a whole, it refreshes age-old human struggles with a unique and unexpected sound.

There was no follow-up tour for Automatic For The People, due in part to the suffering health of a few of the band members. This did nothing to lessen the commercial and critical success the album received almost instantly. In a New York Times review, Ann Powers concludes that band members “Buck, Mills and Berry can still conjure melodies that fall like summer sunlight. And Stipe still possesses a gorgeous voice that cannot shake its own gift for meaning. His self-doubt and evasiveness never completely squelch its evocative power.”

Two years later, R.E.M. released Monster, a notably rock-driven album that achieved considerable success. With the triple threat of Out Of Time, Automatic For The People, and Monster, R.E.M. secured their position as a touchstone group for alternative pop rock, and had a marked influence on bands like The Replacements and Sonic Youth.

Anne Kilfoyle, MXDWN