Twenty years ago tomorrow, R.E.M. delivered Automatic For The People. Expanding upon the country-tinged rock of its predecessor, 1991′s Out Of Time, the group’s eighth disc was markedly more somber in tone. Excepting a few upbeat-by-comparison tracks like “Man In The Moon” and “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight,” Automatic For The People is a contemplative collection of songs perfectly suited to the season in which it first arrived.
A college sophomore when Automatic was issued, I picked up the CD on its day of release, October 6, 1992. For a long time afterward, it enjoyed frequent residency on my Discman (!) as I walked to and from classes. I vividly recall listening to it one Saturday morning in those first few weeks as I enjoyed a quiet walk through the leaf-littered woods on campus. Taking some pictures along the way — pre-digital, mind you — Automatic For The People and autumn are forever linked because of these associations.
The album’s twelve tracks hang together like all albums should — a true mood piece — but few do. I responded to some immediately, like the mournfully resolute “Try Not To Breathe” and the broken beauty of “Sweetness Follows” (wonderfully underscored by its sawing cello), while others, like “Star Me Kitten,” took longer to warm up to. Two decades on, whenever I play Automatic For The People, I discover that certain bits resonate more strongly, while others recede. In that respect, it hasn’t been the same album twice, which makes it stand out among my favorites.
The album’s opener, “Drive,” served as the first single from Automatic For The People. Steady in its simplicity, “Drive” was a curious choice. The band distanced itself from pop-rock conventions on the track, while including a noteworthy lyrical echo back to David Essex’s 1974 hit, “Rock On.” Still, “Drive” managed to hit #28 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was a #1 Modern Rock hit. Turning crowd surfing on its head, the video nabbed some eyeballs, too:
“Drive” was R.E.M.’s highest charting Billboard Hot 100 entry from Automatic For The People. I would have thought “Everybody Hurts” had done better, but the album’s fourth single topped out at #29 (its anthemic status came later). Among Automatic‘s ballads, I prefer “Nightswimming,” but the music video for “Everybody Hurts” is one of the band’s best.
If Automatic isn’t in your collection or it’s been a while since you pulled it down from the shelf, there’s no better time than now to revisit R.E.M.’s autumnal masterpiece. And if you happen to be near Athens, Georgia, consider making a pilgrimage to Weaver D’s, the soul food restaurant whose motto gave R.E.M.’s album its name. After 26 years in business, ‘the people’ are no longer coming automatically, so Weaver D’s may have to close.
[NOTE: This post originally appeared in altered form on October 10, 2008.]