Album of the Week: R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (1992)

In high school I had a tape deck in my car and was looking for tapes to play. So in like 2012 I got this R.E.M. tape at a neighbor’s garage sale for, I dunno, maybe a dollar. I had listened to the album before, and I knew the hits, but it wasn’t until I drove around for a while that it really clicked with me. The deck changed sides automatically (heh), so I never really knew where the album started or ended because I wasn’t paying attention to the track titles on the tape. I thought “Ignoreland” was “It’s Your Land” or “Indoor Man”.

Okay, so this one isn’t exactly an underrated gem. People love R.E.M. They made pop music. I remember talking to a kid in my high school class, and he told me R.E.M. was his favorite band. I mentioned that I really liked “Don’t Go Back to Rockville”, and he told me he didn’t know that song. And this is not to sound holier-than-thou: if you told me you really liked “My Love Paramour” by Cocteau Twins, I’d be like “I don’t know that one”, because I don’t. But you don’t have to be an obsessive music nerd to know R.E.M.

Anyway, this became a really special album to me after all those hours in the car. Every song is great. I haven’t yet heard another R.E.M. album I could say that about. Elizabeth Wurtzel called this album “moody and introspective,” which is about right. “Drive” is like an elegy for rock music, as corny as that sounds. And it is a little bit corny, but it’s beautiful, like the rest of the album.

I want to point out the similarities between “Everybody Hurts” and “Love Hurts”. “Love Hurts” is a tender ballad originally written for the Everly Brothers that was also covered by the late Gram Parsons, and is most well-known as a hit by the band Nazareth. “Everybody Hurts” is the fourth track on Automatic, and it’s also a tender ballad. Talk about corny and beautiful. It’s been used in suicide hotline ads and animated kids movies. Like “Love Hurts”, I can’t really imagine playing this song seriously around other people. It’s one to put on when you’re alone and stare at the wall thinking about life.

“Star Me Kitten” is one of my favorite tracks here. It’s so relaxing. The organ creates a church-like atmosphere, despite the suggestive lyrics. It’s like a lullaby. Amazing. “Nightswimming” is a classic. You’ll be like, damn, this 32 year old bald guy really had me crying. It unlocks something. I want to live in this song.

The melodica melody on “Find the River” will stick in your head for days after the album ends. It reverberates. I like this quality in an album’s final track, where it sounds like it could be a beginning. And to me it is, because I used to just play this album over and over again. I love this album.

Listen to Automatic for the People here.

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