The Good: Excellent lyrics, Very good voice, Good arrangement, Holds up well over many, many listens.
The Bad: Lyrics aren't in the packaging and some unimaginative instrumental work.
The Basics: Automatic For The People is a must-buy! The essential album of 1992 that is still relevant and wonderful today!
It's hard to say what keeps Automatic For The People from being a perfect album, but it's not. It comes remarkably close, though. After 50+ listens, all I can come up with is that the music they're playing (on "Ignoreland," for instance) isn't terribly impressive or seems incongruent to the song. That and there are sufficient lines that aren't articulated well enough (or are drown out by the instruments) that the album could really use the lyrics in the liner!
Having now purchased and listened multiple times to the Best of R.E.M. dual c.d. (reviewed here!), I realize that there are two minor problems with Automatic For The People. The first is that it could stand to be a little longer. The album feels short. Despite the quality of almost every song ("Ignoreland" and "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" are the closest to underperforming tracks on the album), the album goes by too quick; it develops a mood so effectively that once you're in the hazy, imaginative place that R.E.M. takes you, the album is over and the crackback to reality is unfortunate. The album would probably be a perfect album if they had squeezed "Daysleeper," from one of their later albums, onto it.
The other problem is the instrumentals, the "sound" of the album, is somewhat repetitive. This is one of those "weaknesses as a strength" arguments. Because the group is frequently limited to playing guitar, drums, bass and piano on their tracks, the songs sound somewhat similar to each other after many listens. For example, parts of "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" and "Ignoreland" are mixed to sound remarkably similar. On the plus side, this adds a homogenous quality to the album that makes it work in establishing an overall mood.
That said, there's no good reason not to buy this album. Lyrically it is superlative. From the comic tribute to Andy Kaufman on "Man on the Moon" to the fabulously paced "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" to the suicide favorite "Try Not to Breathe" it is readily apparent that the men of R.E.M. are educated and know how to write. Their songs like "Everybody Hurts" tap into the most accessible feelings of despair that we all possess. They often use simple but strongly emotive language to characterize complex emotions that we can all relate to. Indeed, the refrain of the "Everybody Hurts" is remarkably simple: "Everybody hurts / Sometimes / Hold on."
It is the way Michael Stipe, lead singer of R.E.M. delivers the lyrics with such genuine heartfelt, wrenching emotion that makes so many of the songs on Automatic For The People resonate. Even after an excessive number of listens.
It's interesting to note that R.E.M. stopped on this album before its time. No doubt it could be longer with songs of equal caliber, but I mean in terms of marketing Automatic For The People. When the album was released, the singles "Drive," "Everybody Hurts" and "Man on the Moon" graced the airwaves of radio in a blissful way that defied the droll sounds usually found there. But there are easily five other songs that could have been on the radio and it seems like such a shame that they didn't release a fourth single from this album. In fact, it's a rare find - even on a perfect album - to find a disc where every track could have been on the radio and deserves to have had that exposure.
Listening to R.E.M.'s Automatic For The People is like having 48 minutes on some all-male radio station that doesn't suck. The superlative track is the retrospective "Nightswimming" with the closest thing to being a weak link, the intelligent, if occasionally indecipherable "Ignoreland."
For other indie pop/rock artists, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Stadium Arcadium - Red Hot Chili Peppers
Best Of 1980 – 1990 - U2
The Uninvited - The Uninvited
For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page organized from best to worst!
© 2012, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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