R.E.M. has never made music more gorgeous than “Nightswimming and “Find the River,” the ballads that close Automatic for the People and sum up its twilit, soulful intensity. A swirl of images natural and technological – midnight car rides and undertow, old photographs and headlong tides – the songs grapple, through a unifying metaphor of “the recklessness of water,” with the interior world of memory, loss and yearning. This is the members of R.E.M. delving deeper than ever; grown sadder and wiser, the Athens subversives reveal a darker vision that shimmers with new, complex beauty.
Despite its difficult concerns, most of Automatic is musically irresistible. Still present, if at a slower tempo, is the tunefulness that without compromising the band’s highly personal message, made these Georgia misfits platinum sellers. Since “The One I Love,” its Top Forty hit from 1987, R.E.M. has conquered by means of artful videos, surer hooks and fatter production and by expanding thematically to embrace the doomsday politics of Document, the eco-utopianism of Green and the sweet rush of Out of Time. Brilliantly, the new album both questions and clinches that outreaching progress; having won the mainstream’s ear, R.E.M. murmurs in voices of experience – from the heart, one on one.
In a minor key, “Drive” opens Automatic with Michael Stipe singing: “Hey kids/Where are you?/Nobody tells you what to do,” a chorus that wryly echoes David Essex’s glam-rock anthem “Rock On.” In its imagining of youth apocalypse, “Drive” upsets the pat assumption that the members of R.E.M. might still see themselves as generational spokesmen. The group then further trashes anyone’s expectation of a nice pop record with “Try Not to Breathe.” Alluding presumably to “suicide doctor” Jack Kevorkian (“I will try not to breathe/This decision is mine/I have lived a full life/These are the eyes I want you to remember”), the song ushers in a series of meditations on mortality that makes Automatic as haunted at times as Lou Reed‘s Magic and Loss. Relief comes in the form of whimsical instrumentation (such low-tech keyboards as piano, clavinet, accordion); political satire (“Ignoreland”) that suggests a revved-up Buffalo Springfield; and, on the catchy “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight,” some of Stipe’s niftier faux nursery rhymes (“A can of beans/Of black-eyed peas/Some Nescafe and ice/A candy bar/A falling star/Or a reading from Dr. Seuss”). Yet, without a single “Shiny Happy People” among its twelve songs, Automatic is assuredly an album edged in black.
Famous ghosts are tenderly remembered. The calypsolike “Man on the Moon” fantasizes holy-fool comedian Andy Kaufman in hip heaven (“Andy, are you goofing on Elvis?”), and a paean to Montgomery Clift, “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” exhorts Hollywood’s wrecked Adonis to “just let go.” Hard grief inspires “Sweetness Follows” (“Readying to bury your father and your mother”), yet compassion wins out: The sorrows that make us “lost in our little lives,” the song says, end in an inscrutable sweetness.
A homespun ditty, “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1,” and the woozy jazz of “Star Me Kitten” (featuring the weirdest love lyrics imaginable: “I’m your possession/So fuck me, kitten”) lighten Automatic somewhat, but the darker songs boast the stronger playing. Guitarist Peter Buck dazzles, not only with the finger picking that launched a thousand college bands but with feedback embellishments and sitarlike touches. As always, the rhythm section of bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry kicks; on about half the numbers, Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones crafts string arrangements that recall, in their Moorish sweep, his orchestral work for the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request.
If “Nightswimming” and “Find the River” are R.E.M. at its most evocative, “Everybody Hurts,” the album’s third masterpiece, finds the band gaining a startling emotional directness. Spare triplets on electric piano carry a melody as sturdy as a Roy Orbison lament, and Stipe’s voice rises to a keening power. “When you’re sure you’ve had too much of this life, well, hang on,” he entreats, asserting that in the face of the tough truths Automatic for the People explores, hope is, more than ever, essential.