Graded on a Curve: R.E.M.,
Automatic for the People

Celebrating Bill Berry in advance of his 64th birthday on Sunday.
Ed.

On 1992’s Automatic for the People—one of the finest LPs released that year or any other year for that matter—Michael Stipe and R.E.M. play Risk. The goal of the board game is to conquer the world, and that’s exactly what Automatic for the People did. Sure, the LP had its detractors and haters, but they were holed up in Yakutsk and things weren’t looking good.

R.E.M. arose from the burgeoning Athens, Georgia indie rock scene with 1982 EP “Chronic Town,” a record that bore an element of mystery that had as much to do with Stipe’s indecipherable vocals as it did the fact that nothing else sounded quite like it. I spent significant amounts of time trying to figure out what Stipe was saying in “Gardening at Night,” but he may as well have been speaking Quechua. Stipe kept mumbling on 1983’s aptly titled Murmur, but indecipherable lyrics notwithstanding “Radio Free Europe” was one of that year’s best songs.

As Stipe began to enunciate the band lost some of its luster—1984’s Reckoning, 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction, and 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant all had their moments, but none broke new musical ground, and R.E.M. seemed a band going nowhere. Then came 1987’s Document and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” and suddenly R.E.M. found itself with a mass audience. They cemented their place as a commercial pop contender with the playful “Stand” on 1988’s Green and “Shiny Happy People”on 1991’s Out of Time. Both showed the band had a lighter sound, while “Losing My Religion” on the latter LP proved R.E.M. could produce a commercial blockbuster.

On 1992’s Automatic for the People all of the pieces fell into place. It’s the only R.E.M. album I’m inclined to listen to from beginning to end, and all but one of its twelve songs (“New Orleans Instrumental No. 1,” which I’d have replaced with a song with more meat on its bones) will catch your breath. And it just so happens that one of the LP’s themes is breathlessness.

The subject of “Try Not to Breathe” is a man who wants out of this world—I love the cryptic line “I need something to fly over my grave again.” And on “Monty Got a Raw Deal”—which isn’t about Monty Hall, the host of TV game show Let’s Make a Deal, but troubled actor Montgomery Clift—Stipe channels Clift saying don’t waste your breath. He doesn’t want your sympathy.

On “Drive,” Stipe sings “Hey kids, rock and roll,” but it doesn’t sound like a call to arms—as is the case with most of the songs on Automatic for the People it’s hard to tell what it’s about. Stipe might as well be sending out messages using Nazi Germany’s Enigma Code. A resonating cello and guitar feedback dominate “Sweetness Follows,” while the bass in “New Orleans Instrumental No.1″ will rattle the change in your pockets.

The driving protest song “Ignoreland” is as close as R.E.M. gets to hard rock; as for the sorry state of affairs in the Land of the Free, Stipe concedes he’s helpless to change things for the better: “I know that this is vitriol/No solution, spleen venting/But I feel better having screamed/Don’t you?” “Star Me Kitten” is slow, lush and evocative—a song about love and its fraying cords. The lovely “Find the River” brings Gordon Lightfoot to mind, especially with the line “The ocean is the river’s goal.” I would love to hear Lightfoot cover it.

The songs that have kept me coming back over the decades include the jaunty “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” which bears the faint echo of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It’s a song about missed connections and phone calls left unanswered. My favorite stanza? “Tell her she can kiss my ass/Then laugh and say that you were only kidding/That way she’ll know that it’s really, really, really, really me.” The title of “Everybody Hurts” isn’t code—it’s as self-explanatory as it is universal. If the song’s ultimate message (“hold on”) is a platitude, I’m willing to bet it has given many a listener the strength to do just that.

The final two songs are exercises in nostalgia. Stipe’s vulnerability is palpable in “Nightswimming” on which an old photo on a car’s dashboard evokes a quiet night spent swimming with a lover long gone. “These things they go away,” sings Stipe, “replaced by every day,” reminding us that the pain that accompanies loss is preferable to the forgetfulness that follows.

Finally we have “Man on the Moon,” on which Stipe, like a rock and roll Marcel Proust, recaptures lost time by invoking the icons of his adolescence. If I’m moved by the song it’s because Stipe’s touchstones are my own–games of Risk, Mott the Hoople, and above all Andy Kaufman, the comedian whose dada-like performances blurred the line between art and reality.

Better albums were released around the time Automatic for the People hit the record shelves–Nirvana’s Nevermind and In Utero book ended its release. But the LP occupies a special place in the hearts of many, some of whom wore flannel shirts—Kurt Cobain certainly loved it. As for Andy Kaufman, I can’t help but think he’d have found a way to goof on it, in the same way he did Elvis. Monopoly anyone?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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