On October 5, 1992, "R.E.M." released their eighth studio album "Automatic for the People".
The year 1991 was the best year yet in "R.E.M."'s career. The hit "Losing My Religion" was played non-stop on radio stations and its music video received crazy rotation on MTV. Their seventh album "Out of Time" gave them tremendous international success. It spent 183 weeks in the UK charts, sold 18 million copies worldwide, and earned the band no less than three Grammy Awards.
The band members were faced with the question of how to overcome such success? The original intention was to distance as much as possible from the acoustic and folk atmosphere of "Out of Time" and produce a rhythmic rock album. In June 1991, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry entered the studio to write the music for the album. To force themselves to create something different this time, they even decided to switch musical instruments. Buck would play mandolin, Mills played the piano or organ and Berry would play bass. Buck later explained that writing without drums was productive for them and pulled them in new directions. Intending to deliver an album of more up-tempo material after "Out of Time," the band made an effort to write faster rock songs during rehearsals, but when the tunes took shape, they somehow came out even slower and more melancholy than the last album. When Michael Stipe received the tunes his three friends had written in early 1992, he noticed the somber atmosphere. There were more acoustic instruments and organs and fewer drums. It turned out that the lyrics written by Michael Stipe also suited the melancholic atmosphere, they mainly centered around loss, grief, and death and expressed much darker themes than all the band's previous albums.
This atmosphere is already reflected in the first notes of the album, with the song "Drive". We remember the initial shock upon hearing the sounds of Peter Buck acoustic, accompanied by the minimalist bass touches of Mike Mills. So clean, no effects, no drums. Who opens an album like that? Now add to that fact that this was the early 90s, in the heyday of Alternative and Grunge!! a total shock, which was immediately replaced by a big hug for this wonderful and exciting tune. And later when we found out from looking at the CD booklet that John Paul Jones is responsible for the orchestral arrangements, everything came together. This pure magic reminded in many ways of the acoustic "Led Zeppelin" from the '70s. This was the first single released from the album. Michael Stipe said ןt was the first song he wrote on a computer, when up to that point he used a typewriter. He wrote "Drive" as a kind of homage to the song "Rock On" by David Essex. And that's not the only influence here. Guitarist Peter Buck plays the electric solo at 2:05 using a "nickel" coin as a guitar pick, just like guitarist Brian May. It is interesting to note that the band used to play the song in concerts in a rhythmic rock version, simply because it was difficult for them to reproduce its atmosphere on stage. This excellent rhythmic version appears on the tribute album for "Greenpeace" called "Alternative NRG", released in 1993.
The melancholic-acoustic atmosphere continues with "Try Not to Breathe". The song was written about Michael Stipe's grandmother, who was dying while writing the lyrics. Stipe sings from the point of view of a dying man who tells his family not to cry, because he has lived a full and good life and is ready to move on to the next world. In the lyrics Michael asks his grandmother "Why do you shiver?" He noted that at that time she was shaking a lot and it also affected his appearance on stage, with his odd moves.
The next song "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" was the third single released from the album. It picks up the pace a bit and changes the melancholic atmosphere that accompanied us from the beginning. Peter Buck later commented on the decision to include this song in the album and noted that it was included to break the gloomy atmosphere a bit. Given that the album dealt with mortality, aging, and loss, the band felt that a little light was needed. John Paul Jones does an excellent job in the orchestral arrangements of this song, which adds so much to the final result.
We return to the melancholic atmosphere with "Everybody Hurts" also conducted by John Paul Jones. Most of the song was written by drummer Bill Berry who wanted to reach people who felt they had no hope. It is an anti-suicide song and singer Michael Stipe stated that he made a special effort to sing clearly and fluently, because it was very important to him that the message in the song would not be lost. He added that it's one of the songs he's most proud of, because it's something the band did and affected other people's lives. A song that saved a life, literally. The music video for this song won no less than four MTV video awards.
The melancholic atmosphere accompanies us until the end of the first side of the album, with the excellent instrumental piece "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1", which was written at 2 am in the recording studio in New Orleans, after the band had finished recording "Drive". Immediately after, comes the chilling cello sounds of "Sweetness Follows" which deals with the loss of a loved one.
The second side of the album opens up with "Monty Got A Raw Deal" to the bouzouki sounds of Peter Buck, who composed it in a hotel room in New Orleans. The "Monty" in this song is the actor Montgomery Clift, who starred in the movies "The Misfits" and "From Here to Eternity" among others. Michael Stipe got the idea for the song after talking to the cameraman who shot Clift in the movie "The Misfits".
Six of the 12 tracks on the album were released as successful official singles, but "Ignoreland" was not one of them. It was only released as a promo single, but despite that, it also went on the charts. The lyrical content of the song is completely political and it refers to the state of the United States during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush.
Immediately after, comes the song "Star Me Kitten" which was originally called "Fuck Me Kitten". Luckily, actress Meg Ryan came to the famous "Bad Animals" studio in Seattle, during the filming of the movie "Sleepless In Seattle" and convinced the band members that the album would sell better if they changed the name of the song to "Star Me Kitten".
The album ends with an amazing sequence of three songs, the first of which is the rhythmic hit "Man on the Moon", which was inspired by the late comedian Andy Kaufman, whom Stipe admired watching "Saturday Night Live". Interestingly, the title of the song was also used as the title of the 1999 film about Andy Kaufman, starring Jim Carrey. "R.E.M." even got to do the soundtrack, which also included this song. In an episode of the British TV show "Top Of The Pops 2", Michael Stipe claimed that this song was a tribute to Kurt Cobain's lyrics and writing, especially the repeated, "yeah yeah yeah yeah". He attempted to put more "yeahs" in the song than Cobain did.
Then comes the beautiful "Nightswimming" with the haunting piano and immortal string arrangements of John Paul Jones. This is the only song on the album where the lyrics were written before the music. They were written before the band recorded the album "Out of Time", but the band was unable to compose music for them. The lyrics tell the childhood memories of "R.E.M.", when they did their first steps in Athens, Georgia. They used to sneak into the pool of one of the neighbors and swim there naked. Bassist Mike Mills wrote the song on the piano and the band recorded it at Criteria Studios in Miami, where "Derek And The Dominos" recorded "Layla". Mills played the exact same piano that Bobby Whitlock and Jim Gordon played at the end of that song.
The album ends with "Find the River" to the sounds of the melodica played by drummer Bill Berry. This is one of the most beautiful and magical closing songs we know for any album, certainly for a "R.E.M." album.
The band's fear that it would not be able to surpass "Out of Time" turned out to be unjustified. In some ways, "Automatic for the People" even surpassed its predecessor and the amazing result is even intensified in light of the fact that this acoustic-melancholy album came out at the peak of the Alternative and Grunge revolution, exactly at a time when all the bands try to sound as immature, loud and dirty as possible. Under these impossible conditions, the album managed to sell 18 million copies worldwide and win rave reviews. The album also entered the list of the 500 greatest albums of all time by "Rolling Stone" magazine, the list of the 100 greatest albums of the 90s by the same magazine, the list of "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die" and much more...