Like thousands of other people, I listen to the Earwolf podcast R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME? where hosts Scott Auckerman and Adam Scott go through and discuss each of the R.E.M. albums in order (when they aren’t inventing other weird sub-podcasts). I’ve gotten to the point where the next album they’re going to cover is Automatic for the People – so I thought this would be as good a time as any to give this a spin.
As I have been realising whilst listening to previous episodes of the R.E.M. podcast, I actually know a lot of this album from my mum. I remember, when I was much younger, her playing R.E.M. every now and then (mostly Automatic for the People and Out of Time) so it has been an interesting bit of nostalgia to properly listen to these songs.
For the most part, Automatic for the People is actually quite a bit darker than I first realised. This isn’t just because of ‘Everybody Hurts’, which I remember crying to when I was a teenager when I was in my more fragile moments. No, there are tracks like ‘Sweetness Follows’ which deals with death and ‘Monty Got A Raw Deal’ which is about the unfairness of Montgomery Clift’s live post-car crash.
However, whilst these songs can be a little bit maudlin, the album never succumbs to the weight of it’s own darker topics. For one thing, Automatic For The People also contains three far more positive and rocky songs that help to break up the sadness. ‘Man on the Moon’ is one of my favourite R.E.M. songs ever and knowing more about the weird references to Andy Kaufman and the conspiracy of his faking his own death just makes it better. ‘Ignoreland’ is an angry look at the Republican party and there is ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ which is just a whole lot of fun.
What makes me enjoy this album more than Murmur is how far their melodies have come. By this time R.E.M. were in the spotlight more than ever, but they still never allowed themselves to become fully mainstream. Unlike a lot of other bands, I don’t think you can accuse them of selling out or not trying to stay true to who they were. Automatic For The People is the best that they ever sounded and whilst future releases still contained flashes of their genius, this is where they peaked. At least for me that is.