R.E.M.’s eighth full-length Automatic For The People is not a record in dire need of reevaluation. Among the Georgia quartet’s legions of fans, it already holds a special place. This was the record that reaffirmed listeners of the band’s depth as songwriters and musicians as the group cast shadows on the already moody, acoustic-based sound that marked the previous album Out of Time. Moments of levity (“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and “Man On The Moon”) and righteous anger (“Ignoreland”) cleared the sinuses but otherwise, the tone of Automatic is marked by doughy pressure and woozy beauty. The remastered version of the LP brings that to the fore as well as emphasizing the skin-tingling intimacy of Michael Stipe’s vocals throughout.
The existence of this 25th anniversary reissue is here to simply provide some nice context to the oft-told story of where R.E.M. was at this point in their careers. They were already global superstars with four top 10 Billboard singles under their belts and millions of album sales. And, thanks to some irrepressible and inescapable music videos in heavy rotation, they were able to hit these heights without touring. Even as the crest of grunge’s wave appeared on the horizon to wash away all of the record industry’s deeply ingrained understanding of the marketplace, R.E.M. was set to weather the storm.
This expanded edition of the album (three CDs and a blu-ray disc featuring all the promotional videos and the album mixed in Dolby ATMOS) offers a more fully-rounded understanding of Automatic. R.E.M. had already shaken up their usual proceedings on Out of Time, so the logical next step was to push even further outward. Many of the demos collected on the third disc of this set feature only light percussion at all as the band experimented with drummer Bill Berry playing bass and bassist Mike Mills playing a Hammond organ. The results feel vulnerable and chilly, a bracing wind cutting through a thin cover. The more traditional sounding tracks, recorded in a session in their hometown of Athens in early ‘92, are fine, but in clear need of the color and texture that producer Scott Litt brought to the finished LP. R.E.M. and their team also proved savvy, knowing that the songs that didn’t make it out of demo stage, like the jaunty “Mike’s Pop Song” or the blue-eyed funk of “Arabic Feedback, were clearly not their best work.
The crown jewel of this collection is the one live show R.E.M. played in 1992: a benefit for Greenpeace recorded at the 40 Watt Club in Athens. For a band that hadn’t rehearsed much nor played a full live show in some time, they sound remarkably assured and solid. That grip does start to loosen up as they edge towards the end of the show with loose covers of Iggy Pop’s “Funtime” and The Troggs’ 1967 hit “Love Is All Around.” Otherwise, the Automatic and Out of Time heavy set finds the band in full flower, edging toward the grittier sound that would make up their 1994 album Monster, as on their full-throttle revamping of “Drive.”
This set is also a reminder in these dark days of our current administration of how one band could wield its power at the height of their success. The causes important to R.E.M. are present here, with the concert supporting one of their favorite nonprofits and the sparkling pop tune “Photograph,” the track they recorded with Natalie Merchant, which was originally released on a benefit album for pro-choice organizations. (Sadly, this tune is relegated only to the blu-ray disc.) These men were clearly ready to shake off the dull weight of the previous 12 years of divisive, war-mongering Republican rule (see: “Ignoreland” and “Cello Scud,” the title of one of the demo tracks). Between Bill Clinton’s election in ‘92 and the rise of the Alternative Nation in the wake of Nevermind, it’s little surprise why R.E.M. chose to get loud and sexy on their next LP. But before they could get there, they had to vent their spleens, expose their hearts and adjust their focus.