All Of This Is Coming Your Way: R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People

Twenty-five years after the release of REM’s Automatic For The People, Stewart Smith looks back on a masterpiece of nostalgia and loss that still retains its mysteries

“I don’t think there’s any artist that I’ve ever liked who’s disappointed me more than R.E.M.,” Stewart Lee told tQ’s Simon Jablonski in 2011. Probably quite a few people share the comedian’s regret that a band who were once so “brilliant and full of mystery” ended up “just dreadful.” This fan would argue that with the obvious exception of the listless Around The Sun, R.E.M. have rarely been dreadful. But it’s fair to say that in their transition to arty liberal stadium contenders, some of the magic and strangeness of those peerless early releases was lost. The question is, what did they replace it with?

I’d argue that R.E.M.’s finest major label work has plenty of strangeness alongside the big choruses and communitarian sentiments. The 18 million selling Automatic For The People may feature the band’s most direct and compassionate mega-hit, ‘Everybody Hurts’, but it remains a dark and mysterious record. Like many people, I first heard the album as a teenager, finding comfort and hope in that song and others such as ‘Man On The Moon’, while being fascinated and awed by Michael Stipe’s more esoteric imagery and references. Twenty years later, following the deaths of several close family members, it still brings succour. Automatic features some of the finest songs ever written about coming to terms with all the messy death and relationship stuff life throws at you. The album has its nostalgic aspects, but rather than retreat into an adolescent comfort zone, it accepts the passing of things, looking to the future with a mixture of uncertainty and hope.

Automatic and its predecessor Out Of Time are often viewed of a piece. Coming after a decade of intensive touring and recording, both albums find the band taking stock and trying new approaches. Continuities abound. ’Try Not To Breathe’ builds on the Celtic folk-rock of ‘Belong’, while ‘Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight’ cops the upbeat 60s pop moves of ‘Near Wild Heaven’. But Automatic is much less pretty, with Peter Buck’s feedback mussing up the relatively spare acoustic textures. Out Of Time certainly has its moments of darkness and uncertainty, but there’s an autumnal warmth to its baroque folk rock that is reflected in the rustic palette of amber, yellow and pastel green that adorns the album sleeve. The cover of Automatic, on the other hand, signals the album’s more sombre tone with a monochrome photograph of an ugly star sculpture that Stipe spotted hanging above a Miami motel.

A typically moody set of Anton Corbijn band portraits graces the CD fold out, with the only colour coming from the yellow aura that surrounds another photo of the star, and Fredrick Nilsen’s blurry back-cover photograph of a church. The title itself is a throwaway reference to the slogan for a soul food restaurant in Athens, but as R.E.M. scholar Marcus Gray notes, it inadvertently captures the album’s generosity and compassion, “a message of hope to an entire generation: automatic for the people.” The allusion to the band’s hometown fits in with the evocation of summers spent skinny-dipping in ponds near Athens in ‘Nightswimming’, as well as the broader themes of nostalgia and loss that run through the album.

If Automatic has any unifying theme, it is loss. Loss of innocence, loss of love, loss of life. ‘Drive’ makes for a gloomy opener, with minor chords lifted by John Paul Jones’ string arrangement. Whether intentionally or not, the song introduces a recurring trope: the passing of youth. In a bleary echo of David Essex’s ‘Rock On’, Stipe addresses the youth of America, lamenting their alienation, while recognising their agency: “Hey kids rock ‘n roll, nobody tells you where to go.” Schoolyard rhymes are reworked for the neo-liberal era: “Smack crack, Bush whacked” and “Ollie Ollie in come free”, a possible reference to Colonel Oliver North’s profiteering in the Contra Iran scandal (jump forward a few songs and you have the “spleen venting” of ‘Ignoreland’ which drops the first of the album’s f-bombs on the US politics and media).

Stipe’s empathy towards the younger generation younger finds its most explicit form in the anti-teen-suicide anthem ‘Everybody Hurts’. It’s probably not a song I need to hear again, but it would be churlish to deny its power, or the fact it has undoubtedly helped many thousands of people. Few bands could pull off a song like this without it being mawkish or manipulative, but Stipe and chief composer Bill Berry ensure ‘Everybody Hurts’ is everything it needs to be.

Written from the perspective of an elderly woman on her deathbed, ‘Try Not To Breathe’ is one of R.E.M.’s most affecting songs. Read in a certain light, there is a hint of assisted suicide (“this decision is mine”) but the context suggests that it is simply about letting go. “I have lived a full life,” the woman tells her loved ones, “and these are the eyes that I want you to remember.” That last image is one of Stipe’s most moving, and the way his phrasing decelerates from the Celtic lilt of the preceding lines to a syllable-per-beat helps convey the generosity of the sentiment. An amazing song.

For many years I’d misinterpreted ‘Sweetness Follows’ as a Southern gothic murder ballad, in which a brother and sister have done away with their parents in some grisly manner (“readying to bury your father and your mother”). But the song is really about the impact of bereavement on estranged family members, as rivalries and petty disagreements threaten to “pull you under.” As Peter Buck’s coils multiple feedback lines around Knox Chandler’s distorted cello pulse and Mike Mills’ sepulchral organ, the narrator’s promise that “sweetness follows” sounds an ambiguous note. Is there the possibility of reconciliation, or is he being sarcastic? Darker still, could he be hoping for the sweet oblivion of death?

References to R.E.M.’s own youth and childhood run through several songs, most notably ‘Nightswimming’. The song opens with Stipe noting the trompe l’oeil created by a “photograph on the dashboard taken years ago”, a windshield and the passing streetlights. From there he’s transported back to the ponds he and his friends went skinny dipping in at the turn of the ‘80s. There’s a touch of Tweet’s ‘Oops (Oh My)’ to the narrator’s coquettish “I forgot my shirt at the water’s edge,” but intoxicated by “recklessness and water” he overcomes his fear of being caught: “They cannot see me naked.” ‘Nightswimming’ is a gorgeous evocation of burgeoning sexuality, but it’s tinged with melancholy. Those times have passed (“September’s coming soon”) and so, it is implied, have some of the people he knew back then. There could be any number of reasons for these losses, but it’s hard to ignore the spectre of AIDS hanging over the album.

As such, it resonates with a song from fellow Athenians the B-52s 1989 albumCosmic Thing, their first after the AIDS related death of founding genius Ricky Wilson. On ‘Deadbeat Club’ the group recall their queer Southern youth as “wild girls and boys going out for a big time.” “We’ll dance in the garden in torn sheets in the rain,” sing Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, a line that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘Nightswimming.’ Also like ‘Nightswimming’, ‘Deadbeat Club’ is tinged with melancholy, while still being life-affirming, all the more so given the hell the group went through. It’s worth nothing that Stipe makes a cameo in the video, hanging out in the background while Fred Schneider dances the watusi. It would be pat to suggest that ‘Deadbeat Club’ directly inspired ‘Nightswimming’, but it’s probably fair to say that the B-52s gave him a sense of how to turn personal reflections of memory and place into something universal.

If ‘Nightswimming’ focusses on youth, ‘The Sidewiner Sleeps Tonight’ and ‘Man On The Moon’ look back to childhood. On ‘Sidewinder’ the homeless protagonist finds comfort in memories of Dr Seuss (Stipe even lets out a little giggle after that line – one of those perfect flubs that producer Scott Litt wisely left in) but in his heart of hearts he knows that world is a sweet illusion, with “flat backgrounds and little need to sleep but to dream.” ‘Man On The Moon’ takes much of its imagery is from 60s/70s pop culture: Stipe’s listing of board games, his goofing on a children’s encyclopaedia (“Newton got beaned by the apple good”), his tributes to Andy Kaufman and Elvis Presley. Those heroes are gone now, and the optimism of the moon landings has dissipated. “Are we losing touch?” wonders Stipe. But the song, with its soaring chorus and peals of steel guitar, strikes a blow against cynicism. “If you believe there’s nothing out there at all,” sings Stipe, “then nothing is cool.”

Southern gothic clings to R.E.M.’s early records like the kudzu on the cover of Murmur. Take that wonderful line from ‘Harborcoat’ about the town authorities “shifting the statues for harbouring ghosts” or the entire premise of Fables Of The Reconstruction. Their later work doesn’t entirely leave that world behind, but I would suggest that Automatic heralds the resituating of the band’s gothic impulses to Los Angeles, one that reaches its apex in Monster‘s roll call of creeps. Musically, ‘Monty Got A Raw Deal’ embodies the move west in its blend of Appalachian dulcimer and industrial percussion accent. The lyrics were inspired by Stipe’s reading of a biography of Montgomery Clift, the Holywood star who never fully recovered from a devastating car crash, succumbing at the age of 45 to alcohol and substance abuse. Stipe makes oblique reference to Clift’s predicament in a surreal tableau that blends elements of Southern folk tales with the West Coast uncanniness of Maya Deren or David Lynch. The narrator encounters Monty buried in the sand and hanging from a tree, but the actor’s companions (a “friend” and a kneeling woman) advise him to walk on by. Like Stipe, Clift was bisexual, and there may be an element of queer identification in the song’s rejection of 1950s moralising (“virtue isn’t everything”), and its enigmatic offer of a rhyme to overcome the rotten deal.

Lynch often comes up in discussions of ‘Star Me Kitten’ and Peter Buck has commented that the song’s gravel voiced protagonist reminds him of Frank Booth, the gas-huffing psychopath portrayed by Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. Stipe’s character might not be in that category of evil, but he’s a cruel tease, singing a twisted anti-love song to his soon-to-be-ex. Over sleazy organ, lounge guitar and tape loop harmonies (a deliberate nod to 10CC’s ‘I’m Not In Love’) Stipe uses the imagery of cars and keys to depict a relationship that has grown tired (shades of JG Ballard’s Crash as well as the suburban wife-swapping misery of The Ice Storm). He asks his lover to look inside her “glovebox heart”, knowing there is nothing there for him. He teases her with the mundane detail of a three for one deal on keys, adding that he’s changed the locks and she can’t have one. The apparent despair of “Will this never end?” turns out to be a rhetorical question, as with a raised eyebrow he adds, “it depends on your take.” The creepiness of this proposition is momentarily undercut by the suggestion of submission (“you are wild and I’m in your possession”) but with the next line he resumes his manipulative power play: “nothing’s free, so fuck me kitten.”

NB: if you find this to be uneasy listening, check out the version with William Burroughs. Sounding like Skeletor on opiates, Burroughs croaks his way through the song, sending the creep-o-meter off the scale.

Album closer ‘Find the River’ is a minor masterpiece of American pastoral, with Stipe singing of bergamot and vetiver over acoustic guitars and organ that recall Nick Drake’s sublime ‘Northern Sky’. The song opens with an older narrator telling a younger companion “you have to go to task in the city/ where people drown and people serve.” The narrator’s thoughts, meanwhile, are “flower strewn” and he has “to leave to find [his] way”. So far so Kerouac, but the narrator is self-aware enough to acknowledge his “river poet search naiveté,” and the fact that “nothing is going [his] way.” As he searches for the elusive river that will lead him to the ocean and freedom (but freedom from what?) he senses his life passing before his eyes in a series of botanical images: “there is nothing left to throw of ginger, lemon, indigo, coriander stem and rose of hay.” But moving on can be positive, and with “strength and courage” they can overcome their problems and reach the ocean. The ending is both hopeful and ominous: “Pick up here and chase the ride, the river empties to the tide, all of this is coming your way.” All of what? All that life has to offer.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today