R.E.M. – Automatic For The People – Album Review
Obviously there were millions of different options for what would become our 500th review in print…could have gone any direction with it really. Could have done one of the brilliant independent artists or bands we’ve got coming up; I thought about maybe even ‘righting a wrong’ by reviewing an album for a talented artist I once took mistakenly in conversation to be extremely entitled and impatient…and I thought about how one day 500 might not even seem like such a big deal. Planning on doing what I’m doing for as long as these fingers will type coherent sentences…I’m hoping one day that number 500 will be a tiny drop in the bucket of a sea of numbers that reflect our dedication to the independent music-scene…to all music really.
So why not bust out a classic album that is not only full of incredible music & nostalgia for me…but also an album I fully give credit to saving my entire life? Surely it’s time to tell the tale of an uneven teenager, long before the days of my first experiences with any kind of music-journalism…just a kid trying to get by all the overwhelming feelings of high-school and doing my best to get by. I struggled with the whole split-family thing like many kids my age did; my parents split apart by the time I was eight years old and they’ve each continued to add on branches ever since. What else do you need for this back-story…hmmm…I was an average student at best…mediocre grades unless it was English, which was about the only subject that had any hold on me. I was never popular…but I managed to somehow worm my way into many different social-circles even though I was always the odd-man out within them. And like a great many people…I think I felt even at this young age I was meant to do something special.
Nirvana was crushing and killing it for me, verse after verse, chorus after chorus…Kurt’s screams became that voice I needed to express the rage I was feeling. I listened every day forming a symbiotic-relationship with the voice in my tin-can ghetto-blaster; I even broke the ‘no-chemicals-of-any-kind’ rule of my household as I began to find my own identity and go-grunge – I put peroxide in the water I would spray my hair with in the morning so my hair would eventually turn bleach-blonde. My suspicious mother caught onto that about halfway through the bottle…light brown was the closest I ever got to any kind of golden-grease-grunge…and yeah, I caught lots of shit for it. It was one of the first incidences of me acting out in any real defiant way…and it only got worse from there. I was only thirteen but I felt like I was forty years old and constantly carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.
What else…I mean, I tried as best I could to become the voice of grunge and freedom of expression in my high-school, for better or for worse. I was a class-clown who basically had his own office in the after-school detention centre. After being having my pants dragged straight to the ground on the first day of middle-school while I was still regularly ‘free-balling’ it…I’m pretty sure the direction of my life ended up going in whatever way the wind was blowing on my exposed testicles that very day. I wore dresses to school and hung out in the smoke pit with the jocks and football players even though I didn’t play & didn’t smoke…I’d wear all-white with long-hair & a full-beard by thirteen and be called ‘Jesus’ by half the school for the way I looked. I did everything I could to fit-in with everyone by standing out completely on my own. There were other alternative kids, yeah – and they dressed like the music they were into, but no one that quite rocked the grunge image like yours truly…I was literally alone when it came to the image matching the music.
I began to take long walks in the rain, just listening to music. Within the nature of BC and a lot of my hometown in Port Coquitlam still underdeveloped, it made for the perfect setting to get into a real cloudy grunge-mood, storm around in my adolescent depressions and not have to make anyone else miserable in the process. Home-life was terrible and my mother and I fought all the time, I had a step-dad that ‘got me’ really, but just didn’t know how to relate. My difficulties with relating to family in my life today all stem back to these times…in many ways I’m still that kid in the rain walking the streets and trying to sort his head out.
To jump massively ahead to the present-day for a moment – did you hear the news about Colombia House? Jeeeeeeez! Bankrupt after all of these years eh? Shocking that the one-cent & brutal-contract gimmick didn’t continue into the digital age…I mean really, who saw that coming?
Hopefully you can sense the sarcasm in that…it’s our 500th review so I’m kind of counting on a few of you getting my humour by now. But in all seriousness…even though Colombia House would be the ones to assist in ruining my credit before I even held my first job…they also provided me with a massive education in music…and for mere pennies of course. On the advice of my hero Kurt through different interviews and quotes I read…I purloined a four-pack from the R.E.M. catalogue…even though I had no clue what they sounded like or what they were really all about beyond “Shiny Happy People,” which was somehow taught in my music-class. Receiving Out Of Time, Green, Murmur and Life’s Rich Pageant…I started into R.E.M. and their older-tunes while Kurt was still alive, breathing and screaming away on top of the world for all to hear.
And then of course, it happened. Another infamous ‘shot heard round the world’ and Kurt was gone. I remember getting the news in the middle of high-school and walking out mid-day, miserable and more lost than ever before. I went home and immediately put on MuchMusic, our Canadian version of MTV and simply watched for hours and hours and hours, silent as the sad news played out in front of me. In the middle of all of this…they played a video, which would go on to alter the course on ‘how I heard’ the music of R.E.M. – it was “Everybody Hurts,” and I DID…and it finally allowed me a real chance to breakdown in full. Collapsing into tears, hurt and frustration in a sad heap in front of the TV, I said goodbye to a friend I never knew as the video & song played. I heard the melody…I heard the words… It was almost like the angst-part of me had died along with him that day and only the pain remained now.
I had ordered the cassette of R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People, which actually came as a double-feature with The Tragically Hip’s Fully Completely…I got those two for the price of ONE (plus an insane amount of tax & delivery charges – YAY!). Though I’d end up listening to The Hip almost immediately, I had to listen to anything/everything brand-new on the day of, otherwise what was the POINT? These were the best days of my life…opening that mailbox to find a new album I’d never heard before…didn’t matter what artist or band really…just loved that experience of listening to something new for the first time. And like a complete junkie, I still look for that fix daily.
But over the course of that summer-day as it turned to night, one argument or another with the family led to a completely depressed state. Shutting myself in my room as teenagers do…I turned the lights off at 8pm and put Automatic For The People in my tin-can cassette-deck of the ghetto-blaster behind my head resting on the edge of the head-side of my waterbed. My brain has always been way too active to just fall asleep on command…the process could take hours back then and that’s still the case today; on the worst of days I’d remember the time only moments before my alarm would go off after falling asleep finally only minutes before.
I pushed play. “Drive.” Were this not the kind of article where a guy reveals himself, I might have simply said ‘need I say more?’ – but this is that kind of article…so I’ll continue.
The haunting sound of “Drive” instantly took me into a hollow-place…and isolated atmosphere and true moment in time, one I’ll never forget. The instantly-defiant tone was one I recognized and identified with, and the music was so on-its-own…so mesmerizing and captivating in its simplicity; and then the chorus kicks in with the extra strings & the rest – this was R.E.M. as I’d never heard them before.
Songs afterwards like “Try Not To Breathe” possessed such a beautiful kind of special melody that only comes from deep within…the kind of love-song that I’d spend wishing I could write for the rest of my life, as loosely based in anything at all as it is. But lines like “these are the eyes that I want you to remember” are put forth with such a unique and emotionally-captivating way that Stipe owned with authority on this entire album…he put himself out there in ways I couldn’t have even imagined from what I had heard already on their previous albums. I think the entire album of Automatic For The People itself truly marked a different direction for the band’s sound in the emotion of their sound that would govern much of their music until their calling it quits officially years and years later, but staying with them right to the very end.
And though I didn’t ever identify with “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight,” I also became familiar with “Everybody Hurts” being just around the corner. Perhaps the only slight dip in the entire album for me – I appreciate the freedom of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” but it just ain’t my favourite on an album with so many brilliant songs…what else can I say?
“Everybody Hurts” would go on to be another massive hit for R.E.M. worldwide. You can often find tribute songs where they use this song in the background of spoken word, you can find serious dramas in movies and TV that use it…sometimes even epic comedy-sketches to punctuate just the right sarcastic point and drive it all home. It was a song that was there for me when I needed it most for a time of crisis so harsh it’ll never come again, or if anything comes close in scale it still won’t carry the added weight of immature emotions raging in all-directions. It was a song so big, so necessary and so needed…it wasn’t only me that felt this way as this record continued to carry on to massive success; millions across the globe felt as I did about this melancholy melody, and rightly so – it’s perfectly sad.
As it carries on sweetly through “New Orleans Instrumental No.1,” the only song on the album without words…a song nearly designed to give you a pause & reprieve between the heaviness that was and the heaviness that will be in the song to come next, “Sweetness Follows.” For years and years afterwards, this would become my go to song in whatever time of need…and emotional security blanket I could wrap myself up in and calm myself down with even in the most manic of states I could get into. They say there’s a therapeutic value in music…and I couldn’t agree more. Somehow, even as bad as my depression got to as a teenage kid growing up, this entire album allowed me to bypass medication and actually live a normal life. Well…as close to normal as I get anyway…
End of side-A. Told ya – I’m old now.
At this stage of the game…I’m still wired & awake any time I listen this far in the album. My brain is rapid-firing all kinds of questions at the universe as I ponder my existence and just listen. Even back then…always awake enough to flip the tape over to be able to listen to side-B on this album; if it was a record, the grooves and indents would be completely equally distributed – Automatic For The People is an extremely complete album.
“Monty Got A Raw Deal,” but we didn’t. In a glimpse of the R.E.M. of the future to come, I think this track to start side-B really put the mature-side of the rock-band on display. Everything about this song is completely in control in all its mid-tempo glory; Stipe rambles his poetry beautifully on this song and throughout the entire album. Vocally…this album is as perfect as he could have ever hoped to have put forth, every melody plays into his unique qualities like it was all meant to be. “Ignoreland” was a track I’d always been able to imagine seeing them play live…and ironically after growing up and seeing them three times before their retirement, I didn’t see it once. Still…I can remember lying there awake and dreaming of this song going off without a hitch…the incredible vocal-flow of Stipe taking him right to the edge of his full lung-capacity as he heads into the chorus, the band rising to the occasion with him.
As a kid, “Star Me Kitten” confounded me…a song nearly unappreciated were it not the cue for me to somehow find my way to sleep. This gentle, tender melody seemed so loose…like such an afterthought somehow…it floats along in space and never feels like it’ll come down…just floating out there like the audio-version of George Clooney in the movie Gravity. Over time, “Star Me Kitten” gradually became one of my favourites for nearly every reason it WASN’T when I was a kid; I appreciated the stillness of this song more and more as time went by. If any song to me helps me picture the atmosphere of outer-space in my mind, this would be the one…I can zone right out into this.
Though thoroughly awesome for a million reasons, “Man On The Moon” kind of got to me as a young teen. As much as I loved it, I felt like it belonged on side-A somewhere…almost like it disrupted the melancholy, somber & serious nature of the second-half of the tape. After “Star Me Kitten” and the slow free-jazzy-groove they went into, “Man On The Moon” was also a potential disruption to the possibility of sleep anywhere soon; it’s relentlessly catchy energy and massive hooks work like audio-caffeine…and it creates an incredible push to stay awake and hear more music before the sandman takes his brutal hold…
…so awake that the instant “Nightswimming” would begin it held my attention like a wizard on a crystal-ball every time. I wasn’t listening to anything nearly as gentle sounding as this song was at that time in my life…nor did I know if I had EVER heard anything quite so beautiful, or if I ever would after hearing it. It’s as naked, honest, soul-baring, calming, sweet, adventurous and magical as one melody can get…it was a song I never, ever, ever wanted to end. “Nightswimming” would flow quietly and gently into the journey that becomes “Find The River,” one of the most inspiring songs I know of to this day for myself personally. Every time this song would start…it was like a cue for sleep to take over and my imagination and dreams to kick-in. That’s back when I had dreams mind you…not even kidding…my brain must have exhausted that supply of fun-after-dark – I now have about three to four dreams per year I’d say, maximum.
But there was something in that song that sent me off to sleep soundly each and every time. If I was lucky enough, I’d hear the faint click of the tape when it came to an end…but truthfully most times I wouldn’t get that far. Stipe, Buck, Berry & Mills would send me off to sleep; full of hope that the day to follow wouldn’t be as rough as whatever one I was in when I would load Automatic For The People into my cassette deck.
The years that would follow would see me test out my limitations in about a million ways emotionally…but this album has remained by my side at all times…just in case. As a teenager I could walk into traffic, take pills, jump out windows, run away…I did all these things and many times…sometimes I could help it, sometimes I couldn’t. Sometimes I could get myself in front of my stereo and put on Automatic For The People and my emotions would calm down…I’d even out and troubles would all fade away. I don’t know what might have become of me had it not been for this album finding its way into my player so many times when I needed it…I was lucky to have it then.
But the way I see it…is I’m much luckier to have it NOW…without it, I might not have been here at all. And every time I listen to it, sure, it takes me back to some of those troubled times when I listen in between the breaks of the songs…but it also takes me back to an inspirational feeling of hope…that things WILL work out…that “Sweetness Follows.”
And it does. I’m far from perfect, but I LOVE what I do here with music, and with you all through sleepingbagstudios. I can’t imagine a life more perfect than having music surround me each and every day, coming at me left & right through the speakers of your creativity. Music and music-alone entirely made me who I am…and through it I learned to accept and be OK with myself…I grew up…I evolved, changed and experienced a million wonderful things through songs and albums & eventually wrote a few (hundred) of my own. I learned to appreciate the sad moments of my life for what they were and look at them with as much joy as the happiest ones…LIFE…the entire experience…is beautiful.
Today we ALL enjoy a massive soundtrack to our lives at our fingertips on ipods and ithingies…somewhere out there is an album that will unlock doors in yourself you never thought possible to open…and I say do everything in your power to find it! Automatic For The People was that exact album for me…it helped me get through anything/everything that came at me for years as I adjusted to being a human-being outside of educational-institutions. It’s an album so impactful on my life it’d be crazy to think I wouldn’t honour it as number 500; without it…there might never have been number one to begin with. Thank you R.E.M.
I’m looking forward to hitting the 1000 mark sooner than anyone would think humanly possible – so keep on sending that music my way. If you’re willing to record it – I’ll be right here, willing to listen. You people are amazing – and THANK YOU ALL for coming back day after day to read my rants & thoughts on music…you all validate the existence this record allowed me to have…to do some good in the world and to spread some love. Thank you, thank you…really, I mean it – THANK YOU one & all.
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