Sweetness Follows: R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People at 30

Looking back on a timeless time capsule of an album

R.E.M. on the cover of the October 1992 issue of Tower Records’ old music magazine Pulse (Image: Pinterest)

Thirty years ago this week, R.E.M. released an album they had no idea would be as big as it turned out to be — Automatic for the People.

It might seem a little strange to say that, given the big money territory the one-time college radio underdogs were traversing.

They’d jumped from I.R.S. Records to Warner Brothers in 1987. Their first album for their new major label home — 1988’s Green — was a mix of ’60s influenced garage pop, understandably angry political commentary and folk. All of it with, unlike the band’s earliest days, fully intelligible lyrics.

Buoyed by their growing success — 1987’s Document and Green had each been their most successful album to date — R.E.M. became even more willing to experiment musically when it came time for the follow-up.

1991’s Out of Time reflected that, starting with its guest appearances– KRS-One on “Radio Song” and Kate Pierson of the B-52’s on “Me In Honey.” There were some classic album tracks — the lovely Beach Boys-influenced “Near Wild Heaven” and the anguished and haunting end-of-a-relationship ballad “Country Feedback.”

 

VIDEO: R.E.M. “Happy Furry Monsters”

Continuing the upward trajectory, there were two hits. “Shiny Happy People,” also featuring Kate Pierson, was almost terminally cheery, perhaps an even better fit when it was reworked as “Furry Happy Monsters” when the band appeared on Sesame Street years later. It followed the biggest hit single R.E.M. had. A song of obsessive longing, “Losing My Religion” fused their folk instincts with classic pop songwriting, using the simple trick of doing it in a minor key. 

And this brings us to the sessions for what would become Automatic for the People, beginning in the summer of 1991. Guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry worked on musical ideas for two or three weeks at a time. They’d put together a compilation of demos, some fully fleshed out, others snippets they thought Stipe would find interesting.

In early 1992, they had enough material to give to Stipe. As always, he’d come up with the melodies and lyrics. “The music was always there for me in R.E.M. I’m not sure if I’m the handball or the wall, but I need something to bounce off of,” Stipe said in a 2017 interview on Radio X.

The four spent the first half of the year putting the album together.

And here’s where we come to where the band’s expectations differed from what actually would happen. Sure, they were working with Scott Litt again after sales had increased with each of the previous three albums. And they were clearly operating from a position of artistic confidence. 

But Stipe’s head was not in what one would think of as a commercial space in 1992. “I was thinking a lot about death,” he told NPR in 2017. “My grandparents were at the end of their lives and I had a sick dog. I know that sounds like nothing, but I was taking care of a dog that was very, very ill. I had [also] spent the better part of the last decade wondering whether I was HIV positive and realizing, finally, I could get anonymous testing after 1987, and knowing that I was healthy and that I had really dodged more than one bullet. So there was death all around. And it wasn’t a conscious decision to write a song or to write a series of songs or an album’s worth of death songs. But that’s kind of what it turned into.”

Stipe expanded from there on the idea of not just the finality of death, but it being a transition, leading into other forms of transition and change that aren’t always easy to go through.

It was an often quite vulnerable record about sadness and loss. But the band felt good about what they’d put together and didn’t go with an obvious choice for the first single.

 

VIDEO: R.E.M. “Drive”

“Drive” was a triumph of somber mood, with vocal echo inspired by David Essex’s “Rock On”, a beloved single from Stipe’s youth.

“Man on the Moon” was the last song finished. As the album was being mixed, it still didn’t have a lead vocal, because it had no lyrics. Litt suggested the band take a break for a week. Stipe stayed in Seattle, coming up with the lyrics during walks around downtown with a Walkman on.

It may have been, as Stipe has amusedly put it, a song that partly was a way to work in the word “yeah” into a song more than Nirvana had. It turned into a moving homage to the late Andy Kaufman, full of evocative lyrics, Buck’s wonderful slide guitar and Stipe’s emotional vocals.

Litt suggested at some point that John Paul Jones be brought in to do the orchestral arrangements on the album.

The band were fans of Jones’ arranging work, dating back to his pre-Led Zeppelin session days. He readily accepted when asked. “And I really think what he did added immensely to the kind of weirdness and the otherness of Automatic,” Stipe said in the 2017 documentary Automatic Unearthed.

 

VIDEO: R.E.M. “Man on the Moon”

“I knew he was a talented man, but the things he brought back to us were just brilliant,” Mills added. “They managed to take this record to another level without overwhelming it in any way. And even though these songs with strings on them, they still sound like a rock band making a record. That’s a pretty thin wire to walk.”

“Everybody Hurts” shows off what Jones brought to the table. If “Radio Song” understandably hadn’t reinvented R.E.M. as a funky band, they turned “Everybody Hurts” into gently swaying soul with the help of those strings.

For an album that dealt so much with death, there is also reassurance. Stipe was as direct as he’d ever been lyrically with an impassioned vocal to match.

“Try Not to Breathe” is also direct, wrenchingly so, about a woman at the end of her life who’s ready to go, trying to assure her loved ones that she is and that it’s okay. It puts so many traditional R.E.M. elements- Buck’s guitar and mandolin, Mills’ backing vocals in service of the song’s perspective.

In a way, “Sweetness Follows,” built around Buck’s acoustic guitar (and some atmospheric electric feedback) and a cello loop, turns that perspective around. Here, you’re placed into the POV of the grieving, finding comfort and a way to move on.

Stipe wasn’t the only one to have a sound from his youth make its way on to Automatic. Mills was talking with Litt one day about the 1975 10cc classic “I’m Not in Love”, wondering how they’d accomplished that unique otherworldly sound with the vocals. Litt explained that a number of vocals were recorded and put together so that they could be used like an instrument with the use of faders. So Mills recorded a number of his own vocals which, with Buck’s lilting guitar underneath, formed the foundation of “Star Me Kitten”. The lushness, complete with Stipe’s more subdued vocals, stand in direct contrast to the unabashed dysfunctional horniness of the lyrics (“You are wild/And I’m in your possession/Nothing’s free/So fuck me, kitten”).

The sense of loss also makes its way to “Monty Got a Raw Deal” about actor Montgomery Clift, a talented and respected actor who was gay or bisexual (depending on the source) at a time where the studio system demanded closets and beards. Clift was only 45 when he died, having been beset by health problems (a 1956 car accident that nearly killed him didn’t help). There was alcohol abuse and career problems both external and internal (he notoriously turned down a series of big roles in successful movies).

R.E.M. Automatic For The People, Warner Bros. Records 1992

Stipe said he learned to let ideas flow when he started writing lyrics,then go back and edit later, letting himself respect what, in some cases, was a random idea. And thus, while Stipe had no idea why Clift was in his head, he went with it. He showed an empathetic eye, expressing grief at the loss of someone so talented and loved by those closest to him, someone for whom acting alone could take an emotional toll before any external baggage got thrown in.

The song is full of instrumentation not usually found in R.E.M songs — the bouzouki that Peter Buck was learning to play, the moody melodica from Mills and an upright bass where the strings were surgical tubing.

“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” came about because it was felt that the album was lacking in uptempo songs. Stipe was resistant, telling Melody Maker in 1992, “The other guys gave me this new song that is so beyond ‘Stand’, it makes ‘Stand’ sound like a dirge.” He took on the challenge anyway, turning it into an impressionistic series of visuals. Even being less direct and dark than elsewhere, it fits into the album as a celebration of joy (or at least memories of joyful moments).

And Stipe begrudgingly knows he created a nifty pop song. “There are songs that I feel I was lyrically lazy, This one I might have been lyrically a little too over-caffeinated,” he told Radio X, chuckling, “But it’s a song that I hear and cannot stop singing for four days after hearing it.”

Automatic For The People promo poster (Image: eBay)

The biggest outlier was “Ignoreland.” Anyone complaining then or now about R.E.M. being “too political” clearly hadn’t been paying attention. And the song is full of understandably direct anger about what was over a decade worth’s of actions from the Reagan and Bush administrations (“Lost lamb off the precipice into/The trickle down run-off pool”). It’s the only real rocker on the album, and a quite capable one at that. 

And as Mills said, “It’s just profoundly frustrating that that song is as relevant now if not more so as it was then.”

That said, it doesn’t quite fit thematically, even with that self-aware lyric on the third verse (“I know that this is vitriol/No solution, spleen-venting/But I feel better having screamed/Don’t you?”).

When it came to Automatic, R.E.M. absolutely stuck the landing with the pastoral beauty of “Nightswimming” and “Find the River” at the end.

For an album with hints of songs from the band’s youth (including Stipe’s falsetto “eee dee dee dee” lift from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in “Sidewinder”), “Nightswimming”‘s connection is in one of its key instruments.

The song was recorded during sessions at Criteria Studios in Miami. The prominent piano Mills plays was heard over 20 years before on “Layla”‘s beautiful piano coda, a part Jim Gordon stole from Rita Coolidge.

It differed from nearly every other song the band ever recorded in that Stipe had lyrics for them (going back to Out of Time) and asked the band to come up with the music.

The result was a song built on that piano and lifted by more Jones-arranged strings, all set to wistful memories of more innocent times past. The joy of youth feels palpable, even if it’s frozen in the photograph on a dashboard reflected backwards on the windshield. 

 

VIDEO: R.E.M. “Find the River”

“Find the River” came together with Mills’ multi-instrumental skills, as he plays everything (evocative keyboards and recognizable melodica included) except drums. 

“Mills did it in about 30 minutes, and it had such a great feel because it was all of a piece. I refused to try to redo that,” Buck told Q in 1996.

Mills also had the idea for the backing vocals, which harkened back to when they’d recorded “Harborcoat” for Reckoning. He told Berry to come up with a backing vocal part while he’d come up with one himself. They’d sing them individually without hearing the other. 

“The parts could not be more different,” Mills said in the documentary. “But they somehow work together. I’m belting out this really heartfelt emotional high part and Bill’s singing this sort-of weird country, almost, lower part and for some reason they worked together.”

It closes the album on the hopeful note that Stipe, an optimist at heart, wanted. Death may be unavoidable for all of us, but “Find the River” warmly revels in the possibility before the inevitable.

For an album that deals with death and loss, Automatic for the People is never oppressive. The protagonist of “Try Not to Breathe” maintains their agency. There is solace accepted in “Sweetness Follows” and given in “Everybody Hurts”. 

 

R.E.M. “Everybody Hurts”

One could say that Automatic for the People is the last great R.E.M. album, although I’d say New Adventures in Hi-Fi deserves to be in that discussion.

The album is, unquestionably, what might sound oxymoronic at first — a timeless time capsule. It’s a snapshot of a time where a rock band could be free to experiment, come up with an album that sounded like few of its peers and still have a huge hit.

But it’s also an utterly gorgeous, wonderfully produced album that still holds up as a warm-hearted place where the light at the corners never goes out.

 

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love -- music . She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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