Release Date: Nov 10, 2017
Record label: Warner Music
Every music fan has a list of favorite albums -- the ones we still sing or cry or dance to decades after we first fell in love. But when we start considering which ones deserve desert-island status, it gets trickier -- except for R.E.M. fans. Plenty of us would swear we couldn't survive without Automatic For The People.
It is known so intimately by so many people - to date it has sold over 18 million copies - but it somehow manages to retain its original sense of oblique mystery. This is partly due to the album's willfully oblique lyrics, unconventional instrumentation and song structure, but it's also because of its ubiquity: it's such a constant presence in the lives of a certain generation - even 2 or 3 generations - that its original meaning is stripped, obscured by time, and replaced with subjective projection. It's one of only a handful of records that seemingly belong to everyone; from those who hear it occasionally on car stereos, to those who pore over lyrics alone at 3 in the morning - especially those who see themselves in its coded but authoritative depictions of queerness.
Automatic for the People was intended to be a fast rock album. So if you've ever needed proof of R.E.M. as a band guided by their unforced collective muse, their eighth full-length was a start. Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry all began recording demos and trading instruments in hopes to break away from the largely acoustic and folksy Out of Time, their previous and highest-selling album ever thanks to the inescapable worldwide hit "Losing My Religion".
R.E.M.'s eighth album, Automatic for the People , is a monolith. It was the band's biggest seller, their most critically acclaimed record, and the one that would defined them to a global audience: somber, serious and string-drenched, the artwork abstract and monochrome, the name peculiar and evocative. It's also the album that marked the final summit of the band's hitherto vertiginous critical and commercial ascent.
R.E.M.'s eighth full-length Automatic For The People is not a record in dire need of reevaluation. Among the Georgia quartet's legions of fans, it already holds a special place. This was the record that reaffirmed listeners of the band's depth as songwriters and musicians as the group cast shadows on the already moody, acoustic-based sound that marked the previous album Out of Time.
Over the course of the promo cycle for R.E.M.'s eighth album, Automatic for the People, Michael Stipe came out as a balding man. Not that anyone was surprised--as of 1991's Out of Time, the singer's famous cloak of curls had given way to a tidy short cut, and the videos for Automatic for the People's singles had effectively become showcases for Stipe's hat collection. By the time the clip for the album's bittersweet final single, "Find the River," surfaced in the fall of 1993, Stipe's backwards baseball cap could no longer conceal his failing follicles.
Worldwide sales of 18 million are proof that Automatic holds a special place in the R.E.M canon, but its initial release in late 1992 was accompanied by rumours it would be the band's last album. Grapevine rumblings suggested Michael Stipe had contracted AIDS, and the whispers gathered momentum when several tracks were interpreted as addressing mortality. In truth, the group's songwriting was becoming weightier and increasingly mature on a collection that was less frivolous than immediate predecessors Green and Out Of Time.
A quarter of a century may be a long time in rock but the sight of a skeletal Michael Stipe being held aloft by a undulating monochrome sea of hands is a hard one to forget. Thanks to the pre-internet newswire of the music weeklies and not much else, we "knew" the REM singer was unwell but this… The first glimpse of the Athens, GA quartet since Out of Time's MTV-sponsored omnipotence, the video for Drive was a beautiful slo-mo mosh ballet but it said so much more. Where were the Shiny Happy People of 1991, Peter Buck dancing with Sesame Street muppets and Michael Stipe's happy clappy dance routines? And as for the song… John Paul Jones on strings? No Top 40 chorus? HUGE over-dubbed rock guitar riffs? Where were the mandolins, dammit? And was Stipe, well, you know… In 1992, Automatic For The People pretty much kickstarted REM again.