1992 must have been frustrating for R.E.M. Or at least that’s what I gather from Automatic for the People‘s first song, “Drive.” And really, if that’s the case, who could blame them? 1988’s Green, their first major label record, was a turn away from the band’s days in the ’80s, making southern-fried jangle rock and putting Athens, Georgia on the map. 1991’s Out of Time helped them turn the corner to huge-band status on the strength of the surprise success of “Losing My Religion. But that album came out in March 1991. Pearl Jam’s Ten came out in August, and then Nirvana’s Nevermind came out in September.
It wasn’t immediate, but once that album took hold of the music world, all of a sudden it seemed like Michael Stipe’s angst on “Losing My Religion” didn’t rate. “That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight” was replaced by “Here we are now, entertain us!” Which is all well and good, that part couldn’t have really bothered them that much (especially because Stipe and Kurt Cobain would strike up a friendship). The problem is that, all of a sudden, the music industry was talking like “rock music with integrity” was some new event, something born out of the rain-musty flannel and scoliosis of kids from Pacific Northwest. But R.E.M., and plenty of bands like them, had been doing things their own way for years. Their music was honest and emotional, created in the clubs of southern cities instead of the high-up boardrooms of Los Angeles. Nirvana and (some) of their brethren deserved the attention — we’re celebrating Nevermind‘s 20th anniversary these days for a reason — but in the wake of their brash sound, more tuneful bands got left out of the conversation.
So it’s no surprise “Drive” feels like a bit of a kiss off. When Stipe sings “Hey kids, rock and roll,” he sound less like the emotive singer of a jittery band and more like the ad men who ape pop tunes for McDonald’s. The haunting echo of the song, coupled with Stipe’s exhausted, cutting delivery, paints this as the long shadow cast by the more fiery “Smells like Teen Spirit.” It sounds for all the world like a statement of purpose, like R.E.M. was about to stake it’s claim on rock music in the fleeting grunge world.
And that’s what they initially set out to go. Automatic for the People — named after the tagline for an Athens, Georgia soul food restaurant (these dudes do not forget their roots) — was supposed to be an electric, charging record, a change from the more acoustic Out of Time. And even if “Drive” is built on that acoustic riff, it’s the drama of the electric fills that makes it work. From there, though, the rest of the album ended up as something far more muted than they intended. The acoustic guitar still rules the day on Automatic, but perhaps this is a more fitting reaction. In a world where distortion and screaming signals honest emotion, R.E.M. reacted in a surprising way: They set out to show the complex feeling behind beautiful melody. Pop music, washed clean of distortion, could both shimmer and trouble us.
The results are often stunning, but also quietly defiant. “I know this is vitriol,” Stipe admits on “Ignoreland,” the album’s most energetic and political song, but this is a strange kind of vitriol. It’s a deeply personal record, but it airs its frustrations in a curious way, showing a maturity that puts them in stark contrast with the upstart crows populating the early-’90s, major-label rock scene. They could be playful, like when Stipe mocks the high notes from “The Lion Sleeps Tonite” on “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” or they could dip into pop weirdness on the organ-driven “Star Me Kitten.” The band proves their breadth of skill without ever falling into the sound du jour.
In fact, the most defiant moments of Automatic for the People may come in the timeless balladry of “Everybody Hurts” (a major hit, though “Drive” charted higher) and the piano-y dramatics of “Nightswimming.” These songs are guileless, undeniably sweet, almost intentionally treacly. But damned if they don’t still work — yes, “Everybody Hurts” was overplayed, but go back to it sometime, it’s quite good — and they end up feeling far braver than any power-chord blast of noise. “Nightswimming” in particular is an outlier, on this record and in music in 1992, with its wandering melody and nearly non-existent rhyme scheme. It’s fascinating pop song, one you keep waiting to get started until you realize it’s finished and you are wholly satisfied with its subtle bursts of strings and Stipe’s honeyed, gravelly performance.
Then there’s “Man on the Moon,” always referred to as Stipe’s ode to Andy Kaufman. Which is true, and also not. It’s actually a curious follow-up to “Losing My Religion,” an attempt to restore belief and wonder. It flies in the face of angst and worry, preferring instead to suspend disbelief, to discover the new instead of tearing down the old. It’s not a profound statement so much as it is an assertion on the power of pop music. That there’s just as much defiance finding the positive as there is in screaming at the status quo.
So Automatic for the People was a curious kind of rebellion in 1992, and while the band may not have been at the center of rock music discussion, the record didn’t go unnoticed. It yielded six singles, charted at number 2, and it’s considered one of the great rock records of the 1990s. But what’s more important is that this turn in the band’s sound is still vital, still resonant, moreso than most sounds from the bands overshadowing them in a post-Nevermind world. Those opening lines from “Drive,” so tuneful and frustrated, still tell us something today. In the end, we’ll be given flashes in the rock and roll pan, and they’ll be fine for a minute, but in the end the best rock bands simmer for a long time. They make music for the soul, automatic for the people.