Automatic for the People
by David Chiu
(photo of Michael Stipe by Dr.Conati Roberto De Martino, via Wikimedia Commons)
Since its release 25 years ago, R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People has gone on to become an acclaimed work, one of the band’s finest in its rich catalog. So it’s only deserving that to mark this special milestone, the record was recently reissued as a 3CD/1 Blu-ray set featuring the original album; a live performance of Automatic’s music and other songs at the 40 Watt Club; and a collection of outtakes and demos. In contrast to the somewhat upbeat Out of Time from the year before, Automatic for the People was darker and moodier; it sounded pastoral as its predecessor and enhanced by the incorporation of strings (the melancholic mood of Automatic for the People could somewhat be akin to Big Star’s haunting masterpiece Third). A number of the songs from the record have gone on to become R.E.M. classics: the twangy “Man on the Moon”; the ubiquitous and gentle “Everybody Hurts”; the poppy “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”; and “Drive”, a homage of sorts to Dave Essex’s “Rock On.” Other outstanding tracks, which there are many on the record deserving of some further recognition, include the rocking “Ignoreland”; the haunting and driving “Monty Got a Raw Deal” (a reference to Hollywood actor Montgomery Clift); and the pretty and heartfelt ballads in “Nightswimming” and “Find the River.”
Among the extras enhancing this reissue of Automatic are Live at the 40 Watt Club in Atlanta from November 1992, that not only saw the band perform the songs from the then-new record, but some old favorites like “Losing My Religion,” “Fall on Me, “ and “Radio Free Europe” as well as some covers like the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around” and Iggy Pop’s “Funtime.” The third disc is the real treat for fans: demos and outtakes that reveal the songs as works-in-progress: Drive is presented without the strings; “Howler Monkey” is the working title of what would become “Ignoreland”; “Wake Her Up,” and “C to D Slide 13” are early versions of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” and “Man in the Moon,” respectively; and the dreamy and soulful “Hey Love” would later become “Star Me Kitten.” There are some interesting bits particularly Mike Mills’ pretty work titled “Mike’s Pop Song”; the other band members – Peter Buck, Bill Berry, and Michael Stipe–also contributed sketches of ideas during the album sessions (i.e., “Michael’s Organ,” which would later become “Everybody Hurts”) are finally heard here as well. (The Blu-ray edition features the album mixed in Dolby Atmos as well as the promotional videos of the album’s singles). But even without all the special 25th anniversary bells and whistles, Automatic for the People is timeless and deserves all the plaudits it continues to receive; it ranks up there as one of the band’s greatest works.