"Automatic for the People" was the culmination of everything that R.E.M. was. It is the last record where the band was able to successfully expand its art. At one point in the early 90s, I'm sure it must have looked as though R.E.M.'s days as a groundbreaking, innovative gang of musicians were behind them, and that they were destined, if the uneven content on "Document", "Green" and "Out of Time" was any indication, to nip the bud of major label stardom to a degree that would invariably result in the "alternative culture" labeling them as sellouts, if they hadn't been so labeled already. To some degree, that did indeed happen. By 1991-92, R.E.M. were no longer a band with a fresh, enigmatic sound and vision, as they had been when "Murmur" seemed to appear out of nowhere and sounded like it too. Though they had become the standard-bearers of "that alternative sound" from the get-go, their original motivations as musicians and artists seemed to be fading. They were drifting rather dangerously close to the types of pop concessions and pretensions that sank many a band in the 80s and 90s artistically, even though they were experiencing more commercial success than they ever had before. But "Automatic for the People" is the record that reconfirmed R.E.M.'s status as a trailblazing band and alternative icons. From this point forward, they would dabble in variations and/or extremes of the sound showcased here ("Monster", "Up",etc.), all to mixed results and dwindling sales. But sales were besides the point. I would argue that R.E.M.'s talents as artists never gelled more thoroughly and yielded as fully formed results musically as they did here.
What makes AFTP so effective seems rather elusive, but its tangible. The record was the first R.E.M. album I bought. That was a mistake on my part. I had a good deal of difficulty getting into it and wrapping my head around its arrangements. It's a difficult record. It's not a pop record. And my experience was rendered doubly difficult since I didn't have the context of having listened to any of their previous records. I couldn't see the long, winding path R.E.M. had carved for themselves through the American underground and into a mainstream presence. Each record was a checkpoint that served to delineate how R.E.M. the BAND was developing. Perhaps that's one of the hallmarks of a great band: they develop slowly over time as their art becomes progressively more complex and challenging. And AFTP is most likely R.E.M.'s most challenging and uncompromising record artistically. So with that said, when I listened to it for the first time, I found it impenetrable. I was a little more naive back then and a good portion of my attention was drawn to what were the radio hits off the album: "Everybody Hurts" and "Man on the Moon"... and they sounded a lot less spectacular than I thought they should've sounded as "hits" or imagined they sounded in the snippets I heard of them on the radio as a young boy. And the rest of the record actually came across as boring to me. It just seemed too abstract, too cluttered and inconsistent to hang together. And so, I briefly lost faith in R.E.M. after having listened to what was one of their most-successful and apparently highly regarded albums.
All this must give the impression that in order to fully enjoy the record, one needs to know something about the history of the band. I would say that's true... to a point. There are many facets that make AFTP an enjoyable record, but one of the more outstanding of these facets is witnessing how much R.E.M had grown and matured and added complexity to their music since the early days of "Chronic Town" and "Murmur". To my ears, the band on AFTP sounds like an almost completely different band from where they started. Maybe 12 years as a band (at that time) will do that to ya? There's a little bit of everything the band had done on their previous records here as well as many things they hadn't tried yet. But what tied these old and new bits together was that sense of a common theme running throughout the album: death, despair, old age, helplessness, the past. It wasn't executed with the intention of being a concept album, but it's the closest R.E.M. ever came to one. Sure, R.E.M. had found other diversions and themes that had helped to unify their records in the past (environmentalism on "Lifes Rich Pageant", politics on "Document") but here it was evident not only in the thematic motifs of the lyrics but in the juxtapositions of the music and instruments as well. Throughout, it feels R.E.M. deliberately spent time searching for the right sounds, the right instruments to complement their songs lyrically and emotional. Often times, its the presence of one pulsing or alternating sound that sets the definitive tone for each song and gives it the resonance it needs. Though I may be over-analyzing R.E.M.'s collective thought process, to me it seems there was a good amount of care given to the sound of the record and the emotional tone that lets it work so effectively. By this time, having been record-makers for the past ten years, it seemed the band knew very well what they wanted the songs to sound like, and its evident.
But that isn't to say that AFTP is a studied, overworked record as many of the post-Bill Berry (drummer) records would be. The music is performed with just enough off-handedness and spontaneity to alleviate many of those elements and pretensions that dissuade reviewers and eventually the record-buying public. A case in point is "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" which sounds simultaneously like a throwaway that was improvised in the studio yet integral to the make-up of the album. It seems to serve as a respite from the heavy emotional baggage of the previous "Everybody Hurts", an anti-suicide lament that nevertheless remains an uplifting piece of music that deserved to be a single. "Drive" immediately sets the tone for the album with a sophisticated arrangement that mounts in intensity throughout. Complete with strings, it stops and starts like a dying heart. "Try Not to Breathe" and "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" are two great songs rooted in folk. To me, they sound somewhat similar in tone and content, though "Sidewinder" is much more propulsive and forceful. Michael Stipe's gleeful, off-hand vocals on "Sidewinder" are a highlight and recur to a different emotional palette on "Man on the Moon", perhaps the best-known song off the record. In these two examples, Stipe sounds totally invested in the performances, like he's having a great time. He tones-down his vocals for the more foreboding numbers ("Drive", "Monty Got a Raw Deal"), and waxes hopeful or reflective on others. AFTP is a record of differing emotions and contrasts but their juxtapositions throughout work seamlessly. It is a very balanced record.
Both "Sweetness Follows" and "Star Me Kitten" deal with intense, though opposite, emotions. "Sweetness", out of all the songs on the album, most explicitly invokes death as its muse as it closes the first half of the album. With its pulsing and feedback guitars, it offers a sense of comfort but doesn't seem to resolve itself. "Kitten" may be the only love song on the album, but not in a conventional way. It is a lustful plea to a lover in uncertain times. The oft repeated, "Fuck me kitten" is barely audible with Michael Stipe's near whisper. "Ignoreland" is the hardest rocking tune on the album and seems to have political overtones. R.E.M. would explore the style used in this song more thoroughly on the subsequent "Monster" album. "Nightswimming" and "Find the River" are the two tracks that effectively bring AFTP to a close. They offer some, though not omnipotent, closure from the intense emotions explored in the previous tracks.
Throughout, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry mesh remarkably well as musicians. Though there are no virtuosic displays throughout the record, that's not the point. The goal was to facilitate and set a particular mood and the three accomplish that bar-none as they trade-off instruments and add different, unique elements to the mix. Stipe, known to be a distinctly poetic lyricist, was never necessarily the most coherent one. His lyrics take some digging into to grasp. But they fit perfectly within the context of the material. His use of certain different styles, sometimes tinged with a distinctly Southern ambiance and personal investment, etc., and different emotional guises allow for a truly expansive record, though never at the expense of R.E.M.'s identity and heritage as artists. One of the keys to understanding the album, is to see it as not necessarily bringing any sort of new or even groundbreaking sound to the table. It is firmly rooted in the musical traditions of the past, while transcending them into something then termed as "alternative". It is about how the skills of these four men came together to form one whole.
So, long story short, after I managed to listen to "Document" and then "Murmur" (a masterpiece), I was able to return to "Automatic for the People" and reevaluate my opinions. Though it is a difficult record and it requires a certain preexisting mood for you to want to listen to it, it is (to pinch a line from another review of the album that I read on a different website) "the most rewarding record in their oeuvre". Without a doubt.