Though the band initially planned to follow Out of Time with an album of hard rockers, they instead wound up producing a collection of dark, moody songs about death and uncertainty. This is a fine example of a collective artistic muse at work… despite their intentions, the music on Automatic For the People simply found its way out.
‘Ignoreland’ is the one broadly up-tempo song on the album and, not coincidentally, it’s the worst track here. In fact, though I like the song well enough, I’d say it’s pretty much the one thing that keeps this album from being perfect.
Automatic For the People is basically just one long string of highlights, from opener ‘Drive‘ through the soaring ‘Try Not to Breathe,’ the outrageously catchy ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,’ the seriously reflective ‘Sweetness Follows,’ transcendent hit single ‘Man On the Moon,’ and the gorgeous twin water-themed tracks that end it, ‘Nightswimming‘ and ‘Find the River.’
And that’s setting aside ‘Everybody Hurts,’ which has been overplayed enough to feel a little trite but, as a message song aimed at suicidal teens, it’s one of the more earnest, poignant efforts the band has recorded.
As with most R.E.M. albums, Automatic For the People anchors me in a specific time and place. And in this case, that anchor is among the most powerful of any album I own. As I’ve detailed once before in a Michael Penn blog entry, this album and Michael Penn’s Free-For-All occupied flip sides of a cassette tape that I played endlessly during the summer of 1992.
That was the summer I met my wife-to-be and I can’t hear either of those albums without reliving those experiences. It’s bizarre how a period in your life can manifest itself in your mind as something physically tangible… a smell, a taste, a muscle memory that etches a bookmark in your brain you can access as easily as a chapter on a DVD.
‘Star Me Kitten’ is an odd little song that kicks off the album’s stellar final third. This song has mood to spare, and I love the way Stipe’s rough vocals swim just beneath the shimmering surface of all those keyboards and the meandering lead guitar.
Nothing’s free but guaranteed for a lifetime’s use.
I’ve changed the locks
And you can’t have one.
You, you know the other two.
The brakes have worn so thin that you could hear,
I hear them screeching through the door from our driveway.
Hey love, look into your glovebox heart.
What is there for me inside? This love is tired.
I’ve changed the locks. Have I misplaced you?
Have we lost our minds?
Will this never end?
It could depend on your take.
You. Me. We used to be on fire.
If keys are all that stand between,
Can I throw in the ring?
Just fuck me kitten.
You are wild and I’m in your possession.
Nothing’s free so, fuck me kitten.
I’m in your possession.
So, fuck me kitten.