It’s been easy to forget how important Automatic For the People was – and is. At the time of its release, R.E.M. were coming off the mammoth major label success of Green and Out of Time, including seminal hit “Losing My Religion”, just as the American mainstream music scene was opening up to alternative rock (and the country was turning its back on the Reagan-Bush era). R.E.M. were the small town boys made good, going from classic indie records in the eighties to assured status as the biggest alternative band out there. But after the more mainstream appeal of Green and Time, Automatic was a revival of their alternative hearts, in all the right ways.
Yet the seminal record has never quite gotten all the due it is due, being lumped in with the major label releases when criticized as being ‘better back when they weren’t as successful,’ and not getting the mainstream spotlight in the same way Green and particularly Out of Time received. While not a ‘forgotten gem,’ Automatic For the People well deserves a 25th anniversary edition, which includes a live set from the era, and numerous demos.
First and foremost is, of course, the actual album, all twelve tracks. It starts with the powerfully restrained opener “Drive”, and doesn’t let up even as it also doesn’t go big and booming. There’s the songs that you remember, such as “Drive”, seminal anti-suicide anthem “Everybody Hurts”, song-about-an-actor-that-inspired-a-movie “Man On the Moon”, anti-Reagan/Bush “Ignoreland”, snippet of your youth that you miss so much “Nightswimming”, and more. All of those still hold up (including “Ignoreland”, its politics not heavy-handed, even self-deprecating), but listening again finds the other songs that one did forget about, like the carrying power of “Try Not To Breathe”, the other song-about-an-actor “Monty Got a Raw Deal”, even the instrumental “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1”. If you’re going to listen to a twenty-five year old record, not only could you do worse, but it would be hard to do better.
Like other R.E.M. anniversary editions (QRO review), Automatic includes a whole concert from the era, Live at the 40 Watt Club 11/19/92. Recorded in their hometown of Athens, Georgia at the famed venue for Greenpeace, with a solar generator making the watts (a lot rarer back then), the set naturally is heavy on the Automatic, in the start, including a more rocking “Drive” and more twang to “Moon”. Yet what’s actually most interesting is how older songs fit into the set. Bassist Mike Mills has a great story of what Israelis call “Losing My Religion” before that number, but particularly shining now is Out of Time’s lesser known “Country Feedback” and “Me In Honey”. Time’s own alt-quality is often unheralded, and it’s great to hear its non-hits not only fit into the set, but indeed, stand out. There are also I.R.S. Records classics such as “Begin the Begin”, “Fall On Me”, and “Radio Free Europe”, and two covers, Reg Presley’s “Love Is All Around” (sung by Mills) and David Bowie/Iggy Pop “Funtime”.
The other third of the deluxe edition are demos, mostly instrumentals, and mostly with names different than what they would end up with. Most of the songs on Automatic were demoed instrumentally, then given to singer Michael Stipe to give lyrics to. These demos are neat, but definitely undercooked (though it is cool to hear “Ignoreland” without its political lyrics, as “Howler Monkey”). There are some never-heard songs, such as the Mills’ proto-country love “Mike’s Pop Song” and instrumental pieces from guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Bill Berry, the wistful “Photograph” (written with Natalie Merchant), and meandering trot “Devil Rides Backward” to close.
Deluxe edition anniversary re-releases are always a bit of a spotty prospect, between obviously the best stuff isn’t new, diminishing returns on everything else, and the feeling of a cash grab, but Automatic for the People definitely deserves it.