Friday, December 13, 2013

A Crack in Everything: Automatic for the People

This is the second instalment of A Crack in Everything, a series of blog posts that give me the opportunity to tear into the faults of the albums I love, no matter how minor they may be. The first one covered Queen of Denmark by John Grant - you might wanna read that one first.

File:R.E.M. - Automatic for the People.jpg

If Out of Time was the moment when R.E.M. hit the big time, Automatic for the People found them capitalising upon it. Just as OK Computer is the Radiohead album, Automatic... is the R.E.M. album, the one that always appears in Best of All Time lists. Heck, there's a song on There is Nothing More Frightening Than the Passing of Time (Flavor Flav) that singles out Automatic for the People as the peak of R.E.M.'s career; even though they continued to get bigger after this one came out, they never released anything better.

But Automatic... isn't perfect, and in today's blog post, I'm going to explain why.

Everybody Hurts seems as good a place to start as any. I'd guess that it's R.E.M.'s best-known song - yes, even over Losing My Religion - but its ubiquity and its simplicity relative to the other tracks on Automatic... make it a sore thumb rather than a highlight. It's not that it feels out of place musically, but context can be a bitch, and after the grimly majestic Drive, the circular brilliance of Try Not to Breathe, and the goofy masterpiece that is The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, it's kind of strange to hear the song that Leona, Mariah and Rod belted out in the wake of the Haiti earthquake.

Basically, Everybody Hurts is a card-carrying pop music establishment in amongst alternative rock classics, and as awesome as its video is, the "atypically straightforward" lyrics (Peter Buck's words) do feel slightly detached from everything else on the LP. Oh, and its arrival is all the weirder for being introduced by the line "we've got to moogie-moogie-moo on this one" (right at the end of The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite).

But hey, if we're talking about songs that don't quite fit in, why pick on Everybody Hurts when Ignoreland exists? I've seen it called the worst R.E.M. song of all, but that's not fair - the furious, no-pause-for-breath bit that leads into the chorus is awesome as anything else on the album. But Automatic for the People is a gloomy, melancholic record, and Ignore land is really, really at odds with that. It's a real departure from the standard R.E.M. sound; yes, they had done political songs before, but nothing as blunt as this. Compare the lyrics of Welcome to the Occupation (from Document)...

"Hang your collar up inside, hang your dollar on me. Listen to the water still, listen to the cause where you are fed and educated, primitive and wild." the lyrics of Ignoreland...

"TV tells a million lies, the paper's terrified to report anything that isn't handed on a presidential spoon. I'm just profoundly frustrated by all this, so fuck you, man!"

...and you'd think it was two different bands. I get it that you "feel better having screamed", Michael Stipe, and that's rad, but was this album really the right place for it?

Completing this trio of 'What are you doing here? You don't belong on this album! Get out!' songs, we have Star Me Kitten, which was always my least favourite track on Automatic for the People and probably always will be. The sort-of-romantic tone is a nice respite from the doom and gloom going on elsewhere, but I find it too shapeless and too slight to measure up to the likes of Man on the Moon and Sweetness Follows. It doesn't add anything besides room to breathe - at least the Shatneresque William Burroughs version is funny:

One more complaint, and it concerns Nightswimming. I heard In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 before I heard Automatic for the People, and so it was very weird to hear Nightswimming as anything other than the closing track. Don't get me wrong, I love Find the River dearly, even more than I love Nightswimming, but this album has two awesome finales when it only needs one. Perhaps they should have saved Nightswimming for a different album? It would have been a lovely way to end Monster - imagine how much more striking that beautiful piano part would be if it came after all of the fuzz and glitter of that album.

That's about all I've got. Some might say that New Orlean Instrumental No. 1 is the album's biggest flaw, that it's just a pointless instrumental, but actually I quite like having that cool little interlude after the first four tracks. It loosens the album up a little, and unlike Star Me Kitten, it doesn't outstay its welcome.

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