The follow-up to the critically-acclaimed “Out Of Time” (1991), “Automatic For The People” (1992) feels like the perfect successor to the previous offering to me. Now a broader scope of themes is broached, and personal compositions such as “Nightswimming” are turned into wider statements about youth and the passing of time. Mortality is also another recurrent topic, with the songs “Try Not To Breathe” and “Sweetness Follows” treading heavy territory. “Try Not To Breathe” deals with an old man’s resolution to die, based on his will not to be a burden to his family any longer. And “Sweetness Follows” is a song that makes you realize that you don’t have to wait for the end to come in order to bury the hatchet and make peace with any member of your family.
The album also has the highly successful “Everybody Hurts”, with one of the best orchestrated fades of the record. The title is explicit enough, and the song on the whole is just that bit too slow for my liking. But it has “hit” written all over it. The accompanying video was also a clever one, using subtitles that matched and then moved away from the actual lyrics to drive the point home: harming others is human nature in itself. It is not a matter of superiority. Nietzsche used to say that only he who does wrong can do right. I guess he had a point. And so does R.E.M. here.
The set opener is “Drive”. To me, it deals with the relationship between stars and fans (“Maybe I drive/Maybe you walk”) and how (young) fans start aping their idols, right to their most decadent habits (heroin is mentioned explicitly on the lyrics). Let’s admit it, we all have gone through an “I’m Liam Gallagher!” or “I’m Johnny Rotten!” phase when we were younger. The song seems to be saying that something is as real as we want it to be, right until a tragical event comes along. “Nobody tells you what to do, baby” – we end up learning that the hard way. That is just my interpretation.
The disc also has the beloved “Man On The Moon”, a great song about comedian Andy Kaufmann which (along with a later number named “The Great Beyond”) was to be featured on his biopic. It was aptly-named “Man On The Moon”, and R.E.M.’s songs are now deemed as the best part of it.
Moving on, there is the political rant “Ignoreland” with Mike singing through a megaphone (as he had done on “Orange Crush” off the album “Green”), and the record closer is the settling “Find The River”. I read it as the will to find something bigger than yourself, and something that can go forward and carry you when you feel like stopping and giving up.
I really don’t think a lot of “Monty Got A Raw Deal”, “Star Me Kitten” and the instrumental cut. I must say that “Star Me Kitten” has a somehow paranoid feeling that makes me think a lot of the “Monster” songs. And “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” was a song added to bring a lighter number around. It is quite infectious, but a little glaring in the overall scheme of the disc. (It worked very well as a single, though.)
This was to be as hot as R.E.M. would get both critically and commercially. The next record (“Monster”) was to come in two year’s time, and it was a “back to the roots” affair that divided fans and critics alike. In the meantime, things never looked so rosier for the Athens band. I like “Out Of Time” best, but this is also an indispensable work in the annals of the band. I am giving both records the same rating, but maybe this deserved an 8 instead of a 7.5. I think I am going to sleep on it…