Today is the end of the line of my journey through the R.E.M. albums on my list. This is the one album I owned from its initial release, and I have been searching for that elusive R.E.M. album that would pull everything together for me as fan of this band. I have come to the conclusion that every R.E.M. album has a common thread for me, in that there are 2-4 songs I absolutely love, and the rest are just not as compelling as I had hoped they would be. “Automatic for the People” is probably their most universally successful record, and it is highly acclaimed as album #96 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It also is a big bonus for me that the string arrangements on several of the songs were created by Led Zeppelin bassist and recording/performing genius John Paul Jones. All of that said, the same ratio applies here, where there are 3-4 standout songs on an album that I liked but did not love otherwise.
“Drive” opens the record with a dark and powerful intensity, augmented by the strings arranged by Jones. When the drums kick in during the chorus, the full power of this band at their strength is recognized and realized. There are more ballads than rockers on this album, and “Try Not to Breathe” is one of the better ones. I also feel the same way about “Sweetness Follows”, but the real gem of side one, and probably the entire album, is “Everybody Hurts”. Oddly enough, this song was written primarily by drummer Bill Berry, who expands his musical reach on this record, and it is a pretty straightforward acknowledgment that there are certain unavoidable moments of pain and sadness we are all going to encounter in life.
There are three songs on the second side that stand out from the rest. The first is “Star Me Kitten”, a wandering and mildly hypnotic drift set against the note-for-note guitar echo from Peter Buck. “Man on the Moon” is probably the most commercially successful track on the record, and it is a quirky tribute to comedian Andy Kaufman and his many alter egos, including his wrestling background and his unusual tribute to Elvis Presley. It is an oddly happy song, and like on many R.E.M. tracks, the backing vocals from Mike Mills really compliment a strong performance from Michael Stipe.
My other favorite song on this record is also a slow and contemplative track, and it is a beautifully written song. Featuring Mike Mills on piano and the story-telling of Michael Stipe, along with the lush string arrangements that frame this record, it takes me back to my own youth when we would sneak into the neighborhood swimming pool late at night. The cool Colorado night air provided a wonderful contrast to the comparatively warm water, illuminated by the blue-and-white brightness of the night-time ripples in the water. For all of their dark and sad moments, R.E.M. is often at their best when they are looking at life through a brighter lens.
From college rock innovators to mass-appeal album rock, the decade-long run of R.E.M. was nearly unmatched in their growth and development. Within anything close to their genre, only U2 came from a similar background to reach greater heights. I really wish I had seen this band live back in their most energetic period, and although I may not love everything they recorded, the collective best of the best of their catalog will always be an important staple on my lifelong playlist.