photo & text by nacrowe
arguably the most CELEBRATED release from the much-REVERED GEORGIA INDIE ROCK institution that is R.E.M., AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROS, 1992) is very much the culmination of the ELEVATED SONGWRITING and LYRICISM explored throughout the entire previous decade. never did the band sound more COGENT and AUTHORITATIVE then on this record.
on the preceding album OUT OF TIME (WARNER BROS, 1991), guitarist PETER BUCK was largely disenchanted with the guitar as a viable means of EXPRESSION, which is not hard to understand given the EMPTY, MASTURBATORY EDDIE VAN HALEN-inspired WANKERY of the 1980s. BUCK was always more of a TEXTURAL player who philosophically employed his instrument not unlike that of JOHNNY MARR (THE SMITHS), DANIEL ASH (BAUHAUS, LOVE AND ROCKETS, TONES ON TAIL) or ROBERT SMITH (THE CURE) in that the emotional evocation of the part superseded the TECHNICAL PROWESS or DEXTERITY utilized to achieve such. in short, the part served the song and not the other way around. on OUT OF TIME BUCK famously put down his guitar and picked up a mandolin in its place, writing some of their most FAMOUS songs, especially "LOSING MY RELIGION." when i listen to AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE i am confronted with a guitarist that has fallen in love with his instrument again. the SOARING pre-chorus LEAD EMBELLISHMENTS on the aptly titled "DRIVE" or the more SUBTLE FOLK-inspired DELICATE PLUCKED LINES of "MONTY GOT A RAW DEAL" and the WISTFUL, SOFT-FOCUS STRUMMING of "MAN ON THE MOON." the album to my ears just sounds like a master class in the EMOTIVE potential of the guitar as a sonic vehicle.
in terms of EARNEST POETIC LYRICISM, the always INTUITIVE and REFLECTIVE vocalist MICHAEL STIPE on previous releases always had an INVENTIVE and rather OPAQUE way with WORDS and TURNS-OF-PHRASE that emotively translated where his PSYCHIC and AFFECTIVE headspace was at during the point of creation. AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE in that sense is a slight bit of a departure in that the themes and subjects are bit more TRANSPARENT, but such are seemingly the vehicle for translating deeply-felt EMOTIONAL CONTENT. a track like "EVERYBODY HURTS" is so SOLEMN on the face of it that it could very easily fall prey to UNINTENTIONAL SELF-PARODY or MOCKERY. what sells that line is the SERIOUS-MINDED conviction of STIPE's voice as if he is still in the process of dealing with the consequences of said experience in real-time. it is quite the PERFORMANCE and quite the achievement. "NIGHTSWIMMING" is a NOSTALGIC, PIANO-DRIVEN RUMINATION on lake skinny-dipping at night as a youth and that PROFOUND sense of UNIMPEDED FREEDOM that is as EPHEMERAL and JOYFUL as it is BITTERSWEET. not unlike the FLEETING experience of youth itself and growing older. "MAN ON THE MOON" is an ODE to ANDY KAUFMAN as if the late comedian where still alive, ready to pounce and eviscerate our collective cultural expectations once again with one last gag to end all gags. although the track celebrates his COMEDIC AESTHETIC, there is a MELANCHOLIC vibe that seemingly counteracts the words and insinuates the DISCONNECTION and ISOLATION of a comedian from their audience. its as if KAUFMAN is lost at sea and this song is a siren call to lure him back to shore. my personal FAVORITE track is "DRIVE." it is a COMPELLING MEDITATION over the complexities of being LYRICAL and EMPATHETIC in such a PUBLIC MEDIUM. the video really relates this ODD DYNAMIC visually quite astutely and strikingly with band members individually crowd surfing, literally connecting physically with their audience while being above and separate from such. i continue to find both the song and accompanying promotional video quite POWERFUL. unfortunately it is assumed that KURT COBAIN (NIRVANA) tragically committed suicide to this song, which obviously only further fuses that song with its strong theme of ISOLATION in the public imagination one step further.
not unlike U2 post-THE JOSHUA TREE (ISLAND, 1987), R.E.M. post-AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE finds the group more interested in VEILED EXPRESSIONS through ALTERNATE PERSONAS and EXPANDED PRODUCTION with SONIC JUXTAPOSITIONS that hitherto were not previously part of the band's LEXICON OF SOUNDS. i feel like such was an INEVITABLE step away from the EARNESTNESS that was this album in particular, as if STIPE and company did not wish to be so EXPOSED and TRANSPARENT for public consumption again. at least that is my interpretation.
i can't say i blame them. AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE is ESSENTIAL and absolutely required listening. most definitely worth checking out to the uninitiated.