Wednesday, November 21, 2007

No. 247: Automatic For The People

Band: R.E.M.
Album: Automatic For The People
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: I can't see this record clearly because I love it so much. It came out when I was relatively young, but I ended up rediscovering it in college and continue to find it fascinating.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: There is certainly debate whether this is the best R.E.M. record. The fanbase mostly falls into three camps: the "Automatic" people, the "Document" people and the "Murmur" people. The "Murmur" people are idiots. The "Document" people often are the same people who yell "sellout!" whenever an indie band makes any money. Needless to say, I'm in the "Automatic" camp.
Best song: "Drive" remains one of my favorite songs. "Man On The Moon" was a hit single and is beautifully crafted.
Worst song: This is going to surprise some people, but I don't really care for "Everybody Hurts."
Is it awesome?: No doubt about it.

Back when I was in high school and college (Jesus Christ, that was 10 years ago. I'm getting old), the idea of "selling out" was a curse on anyone with ties to the independent rock community. The grunge superstars were able to bypass it, but even some people continue to claim that "Bleach" is better than "Nevermind" or that "Kingdom of Come" is better than "Superunknown." This, of course, is patently ridiculous.

The threat of a band signing with a major label is that the label will come in and tell the band how to augment or change its sound to sell more records. Maybe the label'll ask for a duet with Rihanna. Maybe they will want a cadre of Swedes to punch up the sound.

Thanks to the explosion of Nirvana and R.E.M., this didn't happen as much as a lot of people think. However, a lot of bands do get fat on major label money and decide to add all kinds of orchestral bullshit to their records. I think specifically of Elliott Smith's major label debut, "XO," filled with pianos and ridiculous arrangement. The songs still remain, but the arrangements are bloated.

I understand that this discussion has become moot in recent years. The generation that screamed "sellout!" is mostly listening to NPR these days and any band worth their salt has sold songs to a car company. The record industry just isn't a place where you can make any money without selling a little of yourself.

Still, there's nothing wrong with making money.

Nevertheless, R.E.M. did it right. The band's major label, debut, "Green," was a distinctly R.E.M. record and didn't deviate much from the previous album. The band evolved two records later, using the major label money for their opus and masterpiece, "Automatic For The People."


"Automatic" doesn't really sound like an R.E.M. record. The jangly guitar isn't really there. Michael Stipe's lyrics are considerably easier to digest (admittedly, still not very straightforward). The band did add strings, though in this case, they hired a real professional to do them right (John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin bassist and fantastic producer).

The result is wonderful and -- as R.E.M. knows how to do -- achingly beautiful. Pain fills the record, as evidenced by the hit single, "Everybody Hurts." "Everybody Hurts" is not my favorite R.E.M. song, but it has a great deal of resonance with people. Similarly, "Drive" has the same feeling, but without the overt lyrics. Possibly due to its dark key (d minor) but "Drive" has a feeling of real desperation.

That's not to say the whole album is down. A tribute to Andy Kaufman, "Man On The Moon" is the closest to a classic R.E.M. song and certainly the closest to their jangly sound. Still, it's lyrically playful and a masterpiece of putting a song together.


The minor songs (aka the non-singles) are great, as well. "Monty Got A Raw Deal" takes a great deal from the band's previous album ("Out Of Time") and "Nightswimming" is a pretty, soft ballad. "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" is a raucous upbeat number while "Sweetness Follows" is similarly haunting.

It's the band's most mature record and certainly its best. Sellout or no, "Automatic For The People" is brilliant.

1 comment:

fft said...

I may be in the "automatic" camp too, although I think Murmur is a completely different album. There has been a lot of REM backlash in the last decade after they got so big, and many people are rediscovering their early stuff. But this album is great too, and I would argue its the album that Stipe & co have been trying (and failing) to make again ever since.