Why R.E.M.’s ‘Automatic for the People’ still feels so vital today
In the early nineties, America was rich with rock talent. While Nirvana had begun their journey toward the sun, and Pearl Jam were equally as imposing across the globe, one band stood out among the rest— R.E.M. The release of their eighth studio album, Automatic for the People, provides a crystalline reminder of their talent and just how refreshing a voice like Michael Stipe’s was in 1992. The fact that today it still holds up as a textured, honest and vulnerable piece of musicianship is testament to the craft the band possess.
Forming in back in 1980 with Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe meeting at the University of Georgia, the band soon became one of the first-ever alternative rock groups, providing a unique take on the genre that had dominated the previous decades. R.E.M. were a different proposition entirely to everything that had come before them, using their obscure lyrics, iconic guitar sound and Stipe’s unique vocals to create their own niche. On Automatic for the People, they provided a distillation of that sound and it is a potent dose of alt-rock.
Following 1991’s Out of Time was always going to be a difficult thing. It was the band’s smash album, reaching number one across the major charts and cementing R.E.M. as one of the biggest bands on the planet, if not the biggest. With Automatic for the People, they proved that it was no fluke and delivered an album that manages to do the most difficult thing for any rock band looking for ubiquity—a balancing act.
Long gone were the days of R.E.M. as hot new things, after all, it had been 12 years since they formed. This album saw them effortlessly transcend from being a bright new band to being a consummate act of professionals and, dare we say it, icons of their era. While Nirvana and the grunge counterparts were doing their best to reduce a band like R.E.M.’s rise to popularity as a flimsy plastic ordeal, the band arrived with the perfect album to keep them quiet.
As the world around them got more distorted and a large degree fuzzier, R.E.M. stayed true to their sound and provided some perfectly plucked pop alongside some of the more touching and vulnerable moments on the record. It meant that the band were able to let the grunge kids have their time in the sun, Stipe and the band weren’t concerned with matching their razor-edged sound. Instead, the group allowed themselves to walk gracefully into a new age for the group—musical middle age.
On the record, R.E.M. proves that life can still move along even after your teens and while they make some vague references to grunge in the LP’s opener ‘Drive’, afterwards Stipe gets on with the poetry at hand. For the singer, things had been rough and he needed to take a stand. Though there aren’t a huge deal of strictly political songs on the album (‘Ignoreland’ probably being the only one), Stipe using the record to rally against the previous 12 years of Republican government and their lack of general care for society’s ills.
It’s not something you could levy at Stipe and his band though. On ‘Sweetness Follows’, the group take a long look at the dysfunction of a family while ‘Try Not To Breathe’ opens up the dialogue for euthanasia. Of course, there is the album’s biggest song, ‘Everybody Hurts’, which again tried to connect its audience with one another in an attempt to spread care and love. In equally huge tune, ‘Man on the Moon’ unknowingly provides foreshadowing for the ‘Fake News’ generation.
The balancing act of populous gems and personal mantras make the album a shining gem in R.E.M.’s glistening crown. It offers up an entire society’s viewpoint, fitting for one of the most democratic bands you’re ever likely to stumble across. All in all, It makes for one of the most pertinent albums of its era, largely because it still feels so vitally important today.
It tells us all to open our minds, trust in our hearts and approach life with the knowledge of its innate fragility. The world may have appeared a scary place back then but now we can be certain it is. If you need a moment of reflection, then take it all in below.