Sunday, June 22, 2014

Top 50 Albums of All Time, #23: "Automatic for the People," R.E.M. (1992)

R.E.M.'s career went through a number of distinct phases.  Their first three albums established them as the world's favorite indie critics' band, even as Michael Stipe's enunciation issues and oddball lyrics made them almost impossible to understand.  Around the time of "Fables of the Reconstruction," I remember telling a good friend from my college days that I wasn't even sure if I liked them that much.

And then, BOOM.  On "Life's Rich Pageant" they hired John Mellencamp's producer, turned up the mikes on Bill Berry's drum set, and all of a sudden Michael Stipe decided to stop mumbling.  Some critics called it a sell-out (or even worse, a betrayal), but I thought it was their best album to date.  This trend continued with "Document," which was even better, and "Green," which was almost that good.

But it was after that, in the early to mid-1990s, that the band hit their creative peak.  During that time they issued four consecutive albums falling somewhere between "classic" and "masterpiece," and one of the reasons it's taken so long to restart this project is that I really wanted to avoid the cop out of selecting all four, like I did with Talking Heads.  After listening to all four albums quite a bit, it came down to a choice between "Out of Time" (which should probably be somewhere on this list, but call it near the top of the next tier) and "Automatic for the People," which were released within about a year of each other.

It's the latter album that gets the nod.  Interestingly, the worst song is the first, "Drive," and even it is pretty good.  But it's the six songs that anchor the record - all among their best, featuring some of the most beautiful music they ever wrote - that push it over the top.  I'm talking about "Try Not to Breathe," "Everybody Hurts," "Sweetness Follows," "Man on the Moon," "Nightswimming," and "Find the River."  That's half the album right there, and if I was putting together a tape representing the best of their career, I'd be hard pressed to leave any of those off.

These are not happy songs - just check these lyrics from "Try Not to Breathe:"

I will try not to breathe.
I can hold my head still with my hands at my knees.
These eyes are the eyes of the old, shiver and fold.
I will try not to breathe.
This decision is mine. I have lived a full life
And these are the eyes that I want you to remember. Oh.

I need something to fly over my grave again.
I need something to breathe.
I will try not to burden you.
I can hold these inside. I will hold my breath
Until all these shivers subside,
Just look in my eyes.

The meaning behind those lyrics has been talked about for more than two decades now, to the point where the discussion has its own page on Metafilter.  Clearly the song is about death, but the brilliance of the writing is that you can't pin down the circumstances.  I've always felt it was about someone dying of AIDs, but that's not necessarily the case.  

And these from "Everybody Hurts:"

Sometimes everything is wrong
Now it's time to sing along
When your day is night alone (Hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go (Hold on)
If you think you've had too much
Of this life, well hang on

Everybody hurts
Take comfort in your friends
Everybody hurts
Don't throw your hand, oh no

I'm not sure what Michael Stipe was going through at that time of his life, but he clearly had a lot on his mind.  But it's best to remember R.E.M. as a band, because their work together was definitely greater than the sum of each individual part.  Nearly every song they recorded was credited to the entire band, and the music they created together was at times so beautiful - gorgeous melodies and vocals - that you sometimes forgot that it was a lot more than Stipe and three sidemen.  So here's to Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry.  You were all a great band.

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