Back in 1992 when R.E.M released their 8th studio album, Automatic for the People, they were already relatively old-hands in the music business. It was a time when grunge reigned supreme, following the success of Pearl Jam’s Ten, the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, and the marriage of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. At the other end of the scale, the dance music craze was sweeping the nation with acts like 2Unlimited and Snap! topping the charts. It could have been questioned whether R.E.M’s own brand of radio-friendly alternative rock was capable of providing listeners with a new thrill after already achieving their biggest success to date, Out of Time. Yet, Automatic for the People delves into a new pit of melancholy and darkness not seen in prior jangly guitar-ridden hits such as ‘Shiny Happy People’ or ‘It’s the End of the World (as we know it)’.
It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, at the time David Fricke claimed that the band had slowed the pace on this album to “an agonising crawl”. Yet it garnered a widely positive critical reception, receiving a glowing 5-star review by Rolling Stone, and made NME’s list of 100 best albums ever. Not to mention the enormous commercial success, topping the UK album charts and spawning iconic singles such as ‘Everybody Hurts’ which may divide fans between feelings of love and hate, marmite-style. Its dripping sentimentality that urges those considering suicide to “hold on” moves some and irritates others. Nonetheless it’s one of the most instantly recognisable songs of the 90s.
‘Drive’, the original lead single of the album, has a dark, probing bass which propels the music forwards into an orchestral climax and echoing vocal which makes frontman Michael Stipe sound almost weary and exhausted as he chants “hey kids, rock and roll, nobody tells you where to go”. It instantly distinguishes the album as a brooding and morose look at the human condition. ‘Man on The Moon’ is another essential track, with its gentle mocking lyrics and warm, rhythmic melody.
Twenty-five years on, it has been remixed with Dolby Atmos sound by its original producer Scott Litt and rereleased as a 4-part deluxe anniversary edition. It’s not the first album to receive this treatment, record label Craft Recordings have already offered up a reissue of 1991s Out of Time. Alongside a remastered version of the original album, a second disk features live recordings from the band’s only show of 1992, live at the Watt Club. Stipe’s distinctive voice shines here, with its all too human tremors, and spontaneous ad libs offering a new emotional dimension to many of the tracks. ‘Drive’ feels rockier and less restrained, classic track ‘Losing my Religion’ is lifted by the bright, stinging echo of the live mandolin while ‘Me in Honey’ bursts with energy and invigorating, rolling guitar. The quality of the recording is unsurpassable and you can feel the sound bouncing off the walls of the original venue, even while listening through laptop speakers.
There are a couple of new treats for listeners, including a previously unreleased demo ‘Mike’s Pop Song’, a jovial melody which conceals a tongue-in-cheek lyricism as it probes us to “run and hide from all the beasties”. It’s not terrible but lacks the depth of a lot of the album. Like ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight’, which actually made it onto the finished record, it could have provided an uplifting release from the doom and gloom but may have felt out of place. Weathered fans will also be glad to see the mythical lost track ‘Devil Rides Backwards’, but the real gem is ‘Photograph’, a choppy, mellow song which contemplates a found picture depicting an unknown muse. The physical release is rounded out with a blu-ray disc featuring a treasure trove of extras such as the original press-kit for the album and extended promo videos, which will delight self-confessed audio nerds.
It’s a real treat for hard core R.E.M fans who want to revisit the peak of the band’s commercial success, described by Bassist Mike Mills as the most cohesive and strongest record from first to last they ever produced. Even more so, it’s a well-advised listen for those who enjoy alternative acts like White Lies, Of Monsters and Men and Editors who undoubtedly should raise a glass to R.E.M’s impressive legacy.
See the Automatic for the People album trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCWVRo_l26o&feature=youtu.be
– by Sarah Roberts