Some people claim that there is no such thing as a “bad year in music”; that you just need to “dig deep” to find the things you like. These are likely the same people who can’t name a single song they like from 1902, but given the time and research to find one, they might’ve found 10 albums that they like from 1972. Case-in-point, compare the number of classic albums (the ones that no “deep digging” is needed to find) released in 1992 to the number released in 1991. Compare the number of new genres that emerged in 1992 to the number of new genres that emerged in 1991 (a list which includes shoegaze, grunge, ambient techno and trip-hop and the emergence of West Coast hip-hop). Yeah.
So when I say Automatic for the People is one of the best albums of 1992, know that I do so with much reluctance. It’s not even close to R.E.M.’s best album, and that it’s probably the entry point for a lot of people for the band is troublesome. It’s an album full of laziness that plagues the decade (and the band), and it’s an album full of cheese; cut to the 2:18 mark of “Everybody Hurts” and you can hear Chad Kroeger gaining inspiration to write “If Everyone Cared” for Nickelback.
The thing about this one is, for better and for worse, it doesn’t take a close reading to appreciate any of these tracks, since almost all of them reveal their entire hand on the first listen. The only real exception is “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” because apparently, people have often confused the chorused and sprinted-through “Call me when you try to wake her up” as either “Call me Chow Baker” or “Only in Jamaica” (neither of them work if you bother to count the syllables). But that’s not the only reason; there’s a key moment on the track after the third verse where Stipe chuckles audibly during his delivery of the chorus right after that’s an incredibly human moment in an album that’s either disconnected from life or obsessed with death. It’s also my favorite moment in R.E.M.’s discography.
The thing that no one likes to talk about with regards to Automatic for the People is that there is a drop in quality in the middle section of this album spanning tracks #5-9 (and #4 too, depending on where you stand on “Everybody Hurts,” but more on that later). “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” is definitely pretty while it’s happening, but if you remember anything about it the next day, you’ve probably been blessed with an eidetic memory and should probably be exploiting that in memory contests or casinos; the fact that no one in the band saw fit to make a sequel as hinted by the enumerated titles speaks volumes on what they thought of it. Elsewhere, Bill Berry clearly felt his aneurysm coming on and took it easy on “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” sitting behind his kit only to keep time for the rest of the members. Any sort of melody in the song’s “hook” would’ve helped detract from this fact. “Ignoreland” recycles bits from both “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” (compare how Michael Stipe stutters through “Defense defense defense defense” with “Sub-stub-sub-substantial”) and “Man on the Moon” (the “Yeah-yeah-yeah” chorus), but I don’t mind either offense much because it’s a much needed rock track in the maudlin, mandolin-yielding middle section.
But there’s plenty of good stuff to sandwich that. “Drive” has a wonderful riff and memorable hook, and the band knew it well enough to try rewriting it in the form of “Sweetness Follows,” but forgot either the riff and hook while doing so. Meanwhile, “Try Not to Breathe” manages to overcome being just another folk-rock track because of the commercial jingle intro, but unlike most songs that start with similar intros, it keeps it underneath the rest of the track instead of discarding it immediately after. Elsewhere, “Man on the Moon” probably gets the award for non-hip-hop song with the most pop-culture references and closing duo “Nightswimming” and “Find the River” rank in the band’s best ballads.
As for “Everybody Hurts,” I’ll defer to CapnMarvel‘s assessment, “Simply as awful as it gets – two more generic chords played in generic arpeggio at a generic loping ballad crawl …and Michael Stipe. Singing a song called ‘Everybody Hurts’. About suicide. With absolutely no artistic distance, no point of view, just a straight-up sermon about how you should ‘take comfort in your friends’. Can you imagine how bad that might be? Lord knows, it’s worse than that. Talk about being blunt -Stipe pretty much talks his way through the song laying these easy-solution platitudes on us like some suicide hotline phone operator distracted by a particularly furious game of Minesweeper. Good god, do I hate this song – I have never wanted a lazily mumbled evocatively meaningless metaphor more in my life.”
For the record, I do enjoy the song, despite the ridiculously simplistic arrangement; there is nothing hard about playing arpeggios on a guitar in that tempo, and is that a fucking metronome being used as percussion? I just think it’s a little too long for it’s own good; there’s a great 3-4 minute song buried somewhere there.
If you’re listening to OK Computer and wondering where Radiohead came from, the most recent reference point is Automatic for the People, just without the humour in “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.” I mean, both “Ignoreland” and “Electioneering” don’t quite fit their parent album’s vibes, and both come in at track #8 and that can’t be a coincidence, can it? Meanwhile, lyrically, Thom Yorke takes Michael Stipe’s vague metaphors about life and death and capitalizes on them.
If you want more tangible proof, compare the cover of The Bends to the Nightswimming single. I said jokingly that I heard a proto-“If Everyone Cared” in “Everybody Hurts,” and what’s more important is I also hear a proto-“Let Down.” And that song, well…