Two guys I know from soccer circles who happen to be well-grounded in music are debating this point: Is R.E.M.’s Automatic from the People masterful or mediocre?
I see Brian’s point — Everybody Hurts was a little trite and overplayed. I frankly thought the video was an overwrought piece of crap. That and the odd lead-off single Drive are enough to leave a bad impression.
But I’m leaning toward Dave’s take. I’m swayed a little by an old review I read, probably in the late, great magazine Musician, positing Automatic as a glimpse into autumn and middle age. R.E.M. ponders death (Try Not to Breathe, Sweetness Follows) while cherishing the innocent fun that we don’t have to let go (Nightswimming, the album’s emotional centerpiece). Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I see the finale Find the River as the resolution of a quest for something permanent. Certainly wouldn’t be the first time a rock song used a river as a metaphor for timelessness. See All This Time, Sting.
Automatic is simply greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not flawless, mind you, and I’m not a big fan of the singles. If I didn’t think Andy Kaufman was the most overrated comedian of our lifetime, perhaps I’d like Man on the Moon a bit more. I like Ignoreland, but it’s an odd fit here.
Dig beyond the singles, and you get an album that combines sweetness and melancholy like few others. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.
(Coincidence alert: John Paul Jones did some string arrangements on this album. As I type, VH1 Classic is playing a Led Zep live video of Rock and Roll in which Jonesy’s total screen time is maybe five seconds. Poor guy gets no respect.)
Here’s the biggest selling point for Automatic: R.E.M., from what I’ve heard, hasn’t come close to this since. Automatic was the last in a classic series of albums, with Green the only release that isn’t intriguing throughout. With Monster, Michael Stipe dropped his affable Southern art-rock personality and got a little weird. What’s the Frequency, Kenneth was supposedly some sort of blistering critique of the media but made no sense whatsoever — fine for some of their deliberately abstract works in the ’80s but not good when they’re actually trying to say something. I liked Let Me In, a beautifully chaotic belated plea to Kurt Cobain to turn back from the brink.
Since then, I’ve enjoyed the occasional quirky song like Low Desert. But as much as I love early R.E.M. and share that regional pride of sharing their hometown, they’ve dropped off my radar. Here’s hoping they can make a comeback with the next one.
From Dave’s blog, we have some fun digressions. First, check out his interview with Bob Mould. Yes, that Bob Mould. Dave adds some terrific music to his podcast, mostly Mould but with one selection from Richard Thompson, coincidentally from the album he released when I interviewed him back in college.
(Another odd coincidence: My co-worker Whitney is a big Bob Mould fan. Guess who’s on VH1 Classic now? No, not Bob Mould. Whitney, talking about Wang Chung for one of those 80s compilations. This is getting weird.)
Be sure to read the comments at YouTube, always good for a few hysterical Web-argument howlers. Apparently, one guy thinks the keyboard can’t be in C# because Eddie is Van Halen’s keyboard player. If you can decipher that, let me know.
You have to love those wildly arrogant Web posters who are so astoundingly wrong. I’m tempted to find a Rush board and insist that Geddy Lee isn’t the keyboardist, he’s the drummer.