Terrible album title. Terrible album cover, too. Excellent album, though – maybe the best music R.E.M. have ever made, with all the enigmatic folk-rock beauty of Murmur but at a heavier level of emotional resonance. When R.E.M. dropped Automatic for the People in the summer of 1992, with the end of the Reagan-Bush era so close we could smell it, the world was still reeling from the previous year’s Out of Time, on which R.E.M. had pulled off an artistic comeback (and commercial breakthrough) of historic proportions, especially the hit “Losing My Religion.” But Automatic hits harder, ranking up there with Van Morrison‘s Astral Weeks and Nirvana‘s Unplugged in New York for acoustic high-romantic rock drama. The sound is hushed, reverent, opening with “Drive,” where Michael Stipe lights the candles and preaches like some demented high priest turning “Bennie and the Jets” into a spooky incantation: “Hey. Kids. Rock & roll. Nobody tells you where to go.” A strange sound, for sure – ominous, funny, but unaccountably soothing and soulful.
Gorgeous songs like “Man on the Moon,” “Find the River” and “Star Me Kitten” are drenched in echo and reverb, with a drowsy twang in the psychedelic surf guitars, the pedal steel, the mandolin, the piano, even the string arrangements. Stipe dreams out loud about dead lovers, dead angels, dead celebrities, growling his handsome growl whether he’s grieving or just goofing on Elvis. The band sounds muted and somber, but never dismal, fleshing out each melody with a vividly hypnotic pulse. And don’t even get me started about “Nightswimming,” R.E.M.’s greatest song: Over a stately piano riff, Stipe slips gently into a reverie about skinny-dipping, sex and loss, pining for the moon, drunk on the impossible past. Sure, it’s an album full of death – in nearly every song, Stipe sounds haunted by ghosts. But he sounds so alive with all these ghosts to keep him company, ghosts who swim and drown and surf in his blood. There’s no other rock & roll experience quite like spending a long November evening with Automatic for the People. And after a few years, even “Everybody Hurts” starts sounding good.