‘Automatic For The People’: How R.E.M. Created A Soul-Searching Classic

Artistically, ‘Automatic For The People’ arguably remains R.E.M’s high-water mark. It continues to attract plaudits from far and wide.

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R.E.M.’s major label debut, Green, successfully brokered the band’s introduction to the mainstream rock’n’roll world of platinum discs and large-scale tours, but it barely prepared them for the multi-million sales, Grammy Awards and international stardom which followed the release of their seventh LP, 1991’s Out Of Time.

Suddenly, after five years of cult-level success, and a further five during which their career took on a slow, but very steady upward trajectory, the Athens, Georgia, quartet had gone supernova. Yet, after they’d collected the industry awards and done their MTV Unplugged lap of honour, one question remained unanswered: how would (and indeed how could) they top the achievements of the past 12 months?

Listen to Automatic For The People on Apple Music and Spotify.

Impressively holding their nerve, R.E.M. got down to business as usual. The decision not to tour Out Of Time freed them up to work on new material after their promotional duties wound down, and Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry took full advantage, jamming together in a local rehearsal studio as early as the summer of ’91.

In keeping with R.E.M.’s established modus operandi, vocalist Michael Stipe wasn’t involved at this preliminary stage, but while these early sessions were informal, the three musicians shared one specific goal: to eschew the introspective, folk-flavoured music which had coloured much of Out Of Time in favour of faster, upbeat rock songs. Yet, as Stipe later recounted to Rolling Stone, when Berry, Buck and Mills presented the demos early in 1992, they were, in his words, “Very mid-tempo, pretty f__king weird… More acoustic, more organ-based, less drums.”

However, R.E.M. liked what they had thus far achieved, and after laying down a further set of demos at Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studios, in New Orleans, the band reconvened with trusty co-producer Scott Litt at their favourite haunt, Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York, at the tail end of March 1992. The sessions then moved on to Criteria Studios in Miami, while string arrangements (scored by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones) were later recorded in Atlanta, with the final mixing done at Bad Animals Studio in Seattle.

Completed in late summer 1992, Automatic For The People was issued on 5 October, and its opening track, ‘Drive’, also provided the record’s lead single. A sparse, semi-acoustic almost-ballad in a minor key, enriched by the swirling arabesques of Jones’ string arrangement, it found Michael Stipe intoning, “Hey kids, where are you? Nobody tells you what to do,” in an apparent homage to David Essex’s glam rock hit ‘Rock On’.

Akin to Out Of Time’s ‘Losing My Religion’, the chorus-free ‘Drive’ was a bold, if slightly eccentric statement of intent, and much of what followed demonstrated that R.E.M. had ditched the mooted return to rock’n’roll, instead delivering a dark and contemplative record which quickly drew comparisons with some of rock’s bleaker masterpieces, including Big Star’s Third and Lou Reed’s Magic And Loss.

Explaining the record’s sombre tone, Peter Buck told R.E.M. biographer David Buckley that it was inspired by “that sense of… turning 30… we were just in a different place and that worked its way out musically and lyrically”. Undeniably, several of Automatic…’s songs dwelt upon themes of loss and mourning: the ruminative ‘Sweetness Follows’, for instance, openly spoke of bereavement (“readying to bury your mother and your father”), while the gripping ‘Try Not To Breathe’ (“I will hold my breath until all these shivers subside”) reputedly referred to the controversial physician Jack Kevorkian (aka “Dr Death”), who was later arrested and tried for his role in a case of voluntary euthanasia.

The prevailing bleakness was leavened, however, by the wandering, abstract ‘New Orleans Instrumental #1’ and the jazzy, off-beat ‘Star Me Kitten’. Later a Top 20 hit, the gnomic, if upbeat ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ further lightened the mood, alongside the brilliant ‘Man On The Moon’. Building from dreamy, calypso-like verses to a storming, anthemic chorus, this latter song was Michael Stipe’s personal tribute to the late comedian/actor Andy Kaufman, arguably best known for his role in the NYC-based sitcom Taxi. Released as a single in November ’92, it went on to become a sizeable hit on both sides of the Atlantic and remains a firm favourite for fans and band alike.

“I love that song so much, it’s a happy song. I laugh and smile whenever I hear it,” Mike Mills told journalist Terry Staunton in an NME feature printed in January 1993. “I think what Michael [Stipe] was trying to do was create a situation where Andy Kaufman meets up with Elvis in Heaven – only Heaven happens to be a truck stop. Both of them were people who were rumoured to be alive long after they died. Michael’s just got this funny take on faith and beliefs, trying to understand if what you’re seeing is the real thing.”

Elsewhere, the anti-Republican sentiments of the Document-esque ‘Ignoreland’ fuelled the record’s lone slice of roistering rock’n’roll, while the heart-rending, Stax soul-style ballad ‘Everybody Hurts’ featured one of Stipe’s most consummate vocal performances. Hearteningly, for a record so wracked by darkness, Automatic… concluded on an optimistic note, with two glorious ballads, the graceful, piano-framed ‘Nightswimming’ and the underrated, Bryter Layter-esque ‘Find The River’.

Housed in one of the band’s most intriguing sleeves, Automatic For The People took its unlikely, Kraftwerk-ian title from the motto of their friend Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods emporium, situated in R.E.M.’s hometown. For a long time, the enigmatic, star-shaped ornament adorning the record’s cover was also believed to relate to the same restaurant, yet it actually formed part of the sign for the Sinbad Motel on Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard, close to Criteria Studios, where much of the recording took place.

As with Out Of Time, the critics praised Automatic For The People, with The New York Times’ Ann Powers suggesting that Michael Stipe “still possesses a gorgeous voice that cannot shake its own gift for meaning”, and Rolling Stone’s Paul Evans granting the band the full five-star treatment, declaring: “This is the members of R.E.M. delving deeper than ever; grown sadder and wiser, the Athens subversives reveal a darker vision that shimmers with new, complex beauty.”

In the UK, Melody Maker’s Allan Jones also sagely announced, “Automatic For The People is R.E.M. at the very top of their form,” though his review – like many at the time – speculated on the especially grim rumours then circulating about the state of Michael Stipe’s health. As it turned out, however, Stipe was very much in the pink, he’d merely left interview duties to the dependably garrulous duo of Peter Buck and Mike Mills – both of whom expressed a belief that Automatic For The People couldn’t possibly emulate Out Of Time’s success. “I can’t see it getting to 10 million. It’s just at four at the moment,” Mills told the NME early in 1993. “But who knows? If it stopped selling tomorrow I’d still be very happy. Maybe the next couple of singles will kick it right up there, you never can tell.”

Having peaked at No.2 on the US Billboard 200, Automatic For The People eventually topped the UK LP chart on no less than four separate occasions. Despite the fact that the band again opted not to tour in support of its release, it later went quadruple-platinum in the US and six-times-platinum in the UK. Its total worldwide sales later far exceeded expectations, and the album has since gone on to surpass the colossal total of 15 million copies worldwide.

In both critical and artistic terms, Automatic For The People arguably remains R.E.M’s high-water mark. Nominated for the prestigious Album Of The Year at the 1993 Grammy Awards, it later ranked at No.18 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Albums Of The 90s list, and continues to attract plaudits from far and wide. After recording such an intense, soul-searching record, however, the band knew they needed a change of direction. When they began demo-ing their next album, they were mindful of Peter Buck’s prediction in the NME: “the next record is gonna be real noisy and we’ll tour it”.

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