Why R.E.M.’s ‘Automatic for the People’ Remains as Hauntingly Beautiful as Ever
In honor of its 25th anniversary, Stereo Williams revisits how four bookish nerds from Athens, Georgia, crafted their masterpiece.
R.E.M.’s 1992 masterpiece Automatic for the People arrived as alternative rock had taken over MTV and mainstream rock radio, and just a year and a half before the suicide of Kurt Cobain and the rise of generic copycat “post-grunge” bands semi-neutralized the genre. Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry crafted an ode to mortality and sadness, but injected it with so much musical grace that the melancholy is more cathartic than grating. It’s arguably the pinnacle of the band’s most commercial period and remains one of the most listenable albums of the 1990s.
Nirvana traditionally gets the lion’s share of credit for the early ‘90s mainstreaming of alternative rock, but it was R.E.M. that set the table. From the time they signed with major label Warner Bros in 1988, the quartet from Athens was pushing what had been known as college rock more and more into the wider consciousness. Songs like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and “Stand” had become the kind of crossover hits a band like R.E.M. couldn’t have imagined just five years earlier, and their popularity only continued to surge as the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s. Months before Nirvana released their epochal “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song that’s typically cited as the death knell for the poppy hair rock that had dominated MTV, R.E.M. dropped the video for “Losing My Religion.” That song would become their biggest smash, and it affirmed that R.E.M. weren’t just critical darlings making good—they were bona fide superstars.
The crossover appeal of “Losing My Religion” (as well as follow-up hit “Shiny Happy People”) put R.E.M. squarely at the center of pop culture.
“I described R.E.M. once as a bunch of minor chords with some nonsense thrown on top,” Stipe told Rolling Stone in 1992. “‘Losing My Religion’ has that quality. ‘Fall on Me’ [on 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant] had it, too. You always want to sing along, and you always want to keep singing when it’s over. And maybe every couple of years we hit on one of those.”
R.E.M. already had a decade-long reputation for being a very serious band. When they were still relegated to the back corners of mom-and-pop record shops, the prevailing wisdom was that you couldn’t be as cerebral as these four nerds from Georgia and chart like Bon Jovi—the masses just “wouldn’t get it.” Stipe rejected that notion.
“I’ve always hated the idea that you have to put something on a third-grade level to make most people understand it. I try to rise above it. Early on, I accepted that once a song is pressed and it goes out to people, it’s as much theirs as it is mine. Anything anyone wants to see in them is fine.”
The success of their 1991 singles pushed Out of Time past the triple platinum mark, but the band hadn’t rolled out a tour to support their best-selling album to date. They’d been a touring band throughout the 1980s and had earned a respite from the road. And not having to head off on a tour meant they could quickly get to work on the next album.
In late 1991, with Out of Time still riding high on the charts, Buck, Berry and Mills met in Athens to bash through some new material. The instrumentalists famously switched from their traditional roles: drummer Berry played bass, bassist Mills played keys and guitarist Buck got more into mandolin. This was intended to be a harder, more rock-oriented album—but what they came up with was slow and moody. Stipe was given the music in early 1992. That March, they went into the studio with producer Scott Litt to polish things.
“It’s darker than we thought it would be,” Mike Mills admitted in a 1992 interview with NPR. “We were as surprised as anyone that it was as somber and mid-tempo as it is.”
“The album’s very acoustic, there’s a lot of emphasis on real instruments, if you know what I mean,” guitarist Peter Buck told Indie-Cator just before Automatic’s release. “There’s piano, for example, on ‘Night Swimming,’ and a lot of guitar on the whole album, but it’s not big upfront guitar, it’s subtler than that. On quiet little songs like ‘Try Not To Breathe’ and ‘Sweetness Follows,’ for example, the guitar is always there, but it’s a discordant guitar bubbling under the surface. Automatic for The People isn’t a real rockin’ album, but I think that’s fine, because there are enough of those around this year as it is!”
The original intention of a harder-rocking album having dissolved, Automatic for the People had evolved into one of the band’s most elegiac records. In an era of loud grunge guitars, these guys were going quiet. The album’s cornerstone was the rich ballads, many of which were augmented by gorgeous string arrangements from former Led Zeppelin bassist/arranger John Paul Jones.
“It’s not like we’re trying to play classical music, but we always try to write songs that can break out of the mold, and, for us, not concentrating on the guitars has helped a lot. Most of the songs were written with keyboards in mind, and we had ideas for strings right from the outset. When we wrote the songs, we all sat down together with mandolins, acoustic guitars, organs and whatever, and then when we came to recording, we just transferred to bass, drums and guitars. This is definitely not a rock ‘n’ roll album. I love rock ‘n’ roll, but this isn’t necessarily the year that we wanna make a big rock ‘n’ roll record.”
The moody, dark “Drive” sets the tone for the entire album. There is a somber beauty that permeates Automatic for the People and the opening track embodies it perfectly. Partly inspired by the “Motor Voter” Act and the song “Stop It” by fellow Athenians Pylon, it would be released as the album’s lead single in October 1992.
The acoustic “Try Not to Breathe” is one of the most gorgeous songs in the band’s canon. Another musing on mortality, lead singer Stipe assumes the role of a dying person attempting to comfort his loved ones as they grapple with the inevitable. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” has some of the album’s opaquest lyrics; with references to Dr. Seuss, homelessness and a chorus inspired by “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
One of R.E.M.’s most famous songs, “Everybody Hurts,” would become an MTV fixture in 1993 on the strength of its memorable music video—which featured a cross-section of depressed and lonely people stuck in a traffic jam. As the camera cut to their forlorn faces, screen graphics shared their pained thoughts. An anti-suicide anthem, the song was chiefly written by drummer Bill Berry, and the arrangement, with its arpeggiated guitar lines and swaying strings, recalls the most elaborate productions of Otis Redding and Stax Records.
“Readying to bury your mother and your father” opens “The Sweetness Follows,” a song that tackles fractured ties and how loss can reconnect loved ones. The recurring death theme on Automatic never feels morbid, and “Sweetness…” embodies how the entire album takes seemingly-dark subject matter and imbues it with hope and compassion. Peter Buck composed the music for “Monty Got A Raw Deal” on a bouzouki in a New Orleans hotel room, with Michael Stipe taking his lyrical inspiration indirectly from actor Montgomery Clift. The song doesn’t actually reference Clift, but Stipe drew on him as an inspiration after meeting Clift’s photographer from the movie The Misfits.
For a band whose political and social commentary had become intertwined with their image in the 1980s, R.E.M. downplayed the topicality on this album. “Ignoreland” is the most political song on Automatic for the People, and its most rock-driven track. Stipe rails against the administration of George H.W. Bush: “These bastards stole all the power from the victims of the us v. them years / Wrecking all things virtuous and true.”
“Star Me Kitten” sounds like an affectionate rumination on lost love, but on closer inspection, the song reveals itself as a coldly detached dismissal of a failing relationship. Stipe sings in an uncharacteristically low voice: “You, me, we used to be on fire / If keys are all that stand between / Can I throw in the ring? / No gasoline / Just fuck me kitten.”
Another of R.E.M.’s most popular songs, “Man On the Moon,” is the band’s simple ode to legendary performance artist Andy Kaufman. Referencing Kaufman’s famous Elvis impression and his 1983 movie My Breakfast with Blassie and conspiracy theories, it would inspire the title of Milos Forman’s 1998 biopic about the comedian. Berry had written most of the song when he presented it to his bandmates—with Stipe eventually writing the lyrics about Kaufman just as they were close to completing the album.
Mike Mills composed and recorded the stunning “Nightswimming” on the same grand piano Bobby Whitlock and Jim Gordon used to record the famous “Layla” coda two decades earlier, and the song’s brooding melody is elegantly wistful. A nostalgic remembrance of late-night trips to a Georgia pond, it’s a standout for the band—and for Mills as a songwriter.
“Find the River” is a characteristically vague ballad—referencing the river as both a source for and a conduit to life and freedom. The production is some of the album’s most stripped-but-effective: simple acoustic strumming, an organ, and stately drumming from Berry, with oddly off-kilter backing vocals supporting Stipe’s lyrics about “Ocean storm, bayberry moon” and how “strength and courage overrides, the privileged and weary eyes.”
Automatic for the People would be released on Oct. 5, 1992, to significant commercial success and widespread critical acclaim. It cemented R.E.M. as a platinum-selling powerhouse, but also as an example of how a band could become such a thing without sacrificing its sense of self or its artistic credibility. Unlike Out of Time’s hits, none of the singles from Automatic… would reach the top ten, but they remain among the most enduring songs in the band’s oeuvre. Unfortunately, the album’s themes of death and loss took a strange twist as rumors began to surface that Stipe secretly had contracted AIDS and was dying. Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire caused a furor when he declared at a December 1992 show that “I hope Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury.”
Stipe addressed the rumors in 2004’s Reveal: The Story of R.E.M. “I was upset by it for about ten minutes and then I thought I realized where it came from and dismissed it. I decided not to answer it because I thought, number one, it was meaningless gossip, and number two, I really didn’t want to further stigmatize AIDS by stepping forth and saying, ‘I’m not in any way associated with this.’”
Ignorant commentary and gossip aside, Automatic for the People is a triumph for R.E.M. and is still one of the 1990s’ most enduring albums. Twenty-five years later, it’s a reminder of what that band did best—even after it crossed over to the MTV crowd. An album of endless beauty and grandeur, it’s a study in less-is-more, purposeful production and nuanced songwriting. It was the sound of those nerdy kids from Athens growing up. Today, it’s like a love note from the best years of your life.