Sunday, September 25, 2011

Time capsule: R.E.M.

For this week we go back to 1992.  R.E.M. recently "called it a day" as a band, and they will be missed.  So as they call it a day, this week we look back on their crowning achievement, "Automatic for the people"

R.E.M. rose first in the '80s as college rock favorites - slowly refining and shaping things into the shimmery pop most remember from "Out of Time" - and certainly their most recognizable hit with "Losing My Religion".  Great songs all, but in terms of raw impact and gut-wrenching sincerity - "Automatic for the People" trumps them all.

It starts with the slow-strummed dirge "Drive" - an angry song, yet a restrained song - the rage is of the restrained, backed-into-a-corner variety, yet the feeling is clear in every note Stipe sings.  Many songs on this album follow the pattern - "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" especially - it is bright, almost cheerful, yet if you pause and read the lyrics - it is just as bleak and obsessed with loss and longing as the rest of the album.

Stipe and the boys lighten up a bit with "Sweetness Follows" - still with lyrics that touch on sad subjects, but a far more uplifting track just the same.  "Monty Got A Raw Deal" carries that same bittersweet quality - bleak, but pretty and musically uplifting in spite of the lyrics.

Amidst all this, the quiet nostalgic remembrances evoked by "Nightswimming" help nicely to balance things out - and all in just that one song.  The quirky, amusing lark/Andy Kaufmann tribute "Man On The Moon" is also a fine track to lift the mood up a great deal (even better is the unofficial "Sequel" to that song that came out many years later on the soundtrack to the Andy Kaufmann biopic - check it out here.

"Automatic for the people" is not an easy listen because of the subject matter.  It is, however, a rewarding listen, and worth the effort for the sheer musical prowess flowing from every note.

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