Album Review: R.E.M. – “Automatic for the People”

Automatic for the People is R.E.M.’s eighth album, and it was released on October 7, 1992. I was a senior in high school at the time, and I had loved what I heard from their 1991 album Out of Time. I remember loving “Drive,” the lead-off single, when I heard it on the radio and saw the music video on MTV. While the overall album has a subdued sound sonically, I still enjoyed what I heard.

The album opens with “Drive,” which was the lead-off single for Automatic for the People. The title references the support that R.E.M. was giving to what eventually became known as the “Motor Voter Bill.” Lead singer Michael Stipe has also said the song is an homage to both “Stop It” by Pylon and “Rock On” by David Essex. Musically, the song starts out featuring an acoustic guitar and being kind of laid back. However, as the song progresses, more instrumentation is added, and the sound becomes a little more intense. Personally, I think this song was a great way to open the album.

Next on the album is “Try Not to Breathe.” This song has more of a “country twang” to it, and it lightens the mood of the album after “Drive.” This is followed by “The Sidewinder Sleep Tonite,” a song that was influenced by “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Apparently, the “sidewinder” is supposed to refer to a payphone, since it has a cord that resembles a snake. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” is one of the more upbeat songs on the album, and it was released as a single from the album.

The next song on Automatic for the People is “Everybody Hurts.” It’s probably the best known song from the album, and it’s my personal favorite song from this release. This was released as a single from the album, and it has a very memorable music video. On a later greatest hits album, guitarist Peter Buck wrote that this song was being aimed at teenagers. I was in my late teens when this song was released, and I can believe that teenagers were the target market for it; the lyrics really struck a chord with me at the time, and they still do today. The lyrics are very direct, and the minimal music adds emphasis to the lyrics.

Next is “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1,” which is the shortest song on Automatic for the People. As the title suggests, it’s an instrumental piece, which seems to have a heavy emphasis on a keyboard, with only minimal emphasis on the other instruments that are played on the piece. Unfortunately, the piece is a little repetitive sounding. This is followed by “Sweetness Follows,” which has a similar sound to “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1,” except for the fact that keyboard is not a prominent instrument, and there are vocals on this song.

Next on Automatic for the People is “Monty Got a Raw Deal.” Musically, there is more of an emphasis on the mandolin than on previous songs on the album. After the opening, the song picks up with more intensity, and more instruments are added to the mix. The next song is “Ignoreland.” While it was not released as a single, it still charted on Billboard’s Modern Rock and Mainstream Charts. Lyrically, this song is political in nature, and talks about the state of politics in the U.S. after Ronald Reagan took over the presidency from Jimmy Carter. Musically, it’s one of the “heavier” songs on the album.

This is followed by “Star Me Kitten.” Musically, this song slows the album back down, and it returns to the more minimal sound that defines Automatic for the People. The next song is “Man on the Moon,” which was released as the second single from the album. The song makes references to the conspiracy theory that the American moon landing was faked. The lyrics also make references to the late comedian, Andy Kaufman. Musically, it’s one of the more upbeat songs on the album.

The next song on Automatic for the People is “Nightswimming,” which was released as the fifth single from the album. It’s a ballad that only features vocals, piano, oboe, and a string accompaniment by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Lyrically, it’s a song about skinny dipping. The album closes with “Find the River,” which was released as the sixth and final single from Automatic for the People. It’s a laid back song with minimal instrumentation.

Overall, Automatic for the People isn’t a bad album. The songs sound like they go together and the flow from one to the next rather well. However, for me, Automatic for the People is what I call a “mood album”; basically, I have to be in a particular mood in order to listen to this album from beginning to end. If I listen to this album, I’m more likely to pick and choose particular songs to listen to, rather than listen to it from start to end.


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