Review Summary: The creative apex of R.E.M.'s career - stunning.
I'm not usually one to shed a tear over a bands demise, but even I was deeply saddened by the news that R.E.M. were to call it a day back in September. This might seem strange given that the band had been on a steep downward slope for the best part of 20 years, but the utter brilliance of their earlier work - as well as the odd latter day highlight - meant that it was still felt great to have them among us. If measured by overall influence, it's probably their eighties albums while on I.R.S. which stand the tallest, but in terms of sheer scale, magnificence and ambition, no other album in their 31-year career can touch their 1992 masterpiece Automatic For The People.
Upon its release, this either LP represented quite a U-turn for the Athens quartet. Having already secured legendary status in underground circles for that earlier work, R.E.M. had signed to major label Warner Bros. in 1988, and subsequently released Green and Out Of Time, by a distance the two most commercially viable and upbeat albums of their career. Out Of Time in particular proved a huge smash, with the switch to mandolin designed to polarise fans having quite the opposite effect in that it saw their popularity balloon to an entire new level. Arriving little more than a year later, Automatic For The People could not have been more different. Reverting mostly to the electric format, this album approaches things from a far darker and moodier perspective, perfectly corresponding with the album's bleak cover art and producing songs of unbelievable beauty and splendour. There's certainly no 'Shiny Happy People' or the like, but the results not only matched those previous hits - they completely blew them out of the water.
As good a place to start as any is with the record's most famous song, the utterly indispensable 'Everybody Hurts.' Even after being played to death for the past two decades and murdered by numerous reality TV contestants, this astonishing ode to overcoming suicide still stands as one of the most moving compositions ever committed to tape, and just keeps on giving with each new listen. It's a staggering achievement, and stands as the album's defining moment, but what's even more impressive is that there are plenty of other songs here which are just as good, if not superior. 'Nightswimming' for instance strips their sound down to it's very bare bones, featuring only Michael Stipe's voice, Mike Mills' devastatingly simple piano and a few subtle strings for good measure. Again, it's an overwhelmingly beautiful piece, conceived by a band at the very peak of it's powers and writing straight from the heart with complete conviction. The album's book-ends meanwhile catch R.E.M. at their most subdued, with the haunting opening echoes of 'Drive' reverberating long after it's conclusion, and brilliant closer 'Find The River' finding the band at their most majestic.
Such a record couldn't have been made by an average group of musicians and as such this record finds each member of the quartet at the very top of his game. The majority of the album's composition was handled by Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry, who held writing and recording sessions without Michael Stipe before the singer added his lyrical and vocal contributions. But while the band's instrumental yield is virtually flawless throughout, it's Stipe who is at the forefront for practically the entire duration. As a showcase for his voice, this is a record which cannot be matched, with the songs like 'Ignoreland' displaying his full vocal range and presenting that voice as the clear centrepiece their sound. It's not all about his pipes, though, he was also a great frontman, a fact which especially transpires in 'The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,' another outstanding highlight where Stipe goes about his role with the audible confidence and swagger only possessed by a true entertainer.
That may be one of the record's less sombre moments, yet it still falls seamlessly into place alongside all the more introspective numbers which characterise it as a whole. Indeed the fact that R.E.M. have become best known for these downbeat slow-burners rather than the more rock-orientated style they purveyed for most of their career speaks volumes about the impact that Automatic For The People has made. It may have been all downhill from that point forth, but with this album the band left their ultimate mark on the music world, the influence of which is still being heard in countless acts today. That inspiration should come as some consolation to disappointed fans, but now that R.E.M. have left us it seems even more important that we appreciate just how astonishingly good they were at this glorious peak.