Automatic For The People Bonus-packed 25th-anniversary edition of a genuine classic.
Worldwide sales of 18 million are proof that Automatic holds a special place in the R.E.M canon, but its initial release in late 1992 was accompanied by rumours it would be the band’s last album. Grapevine rumblings suggested Michael
Stipe had contracted AIDS, and the whispers gathered momentum when several tracks were interpreted as addressing mortality.
In truth, the group’s songwriting was becoming weightier and increasingly mature on a collection that was less frivolous than immediate predecessors Green and Out Of Time. Those albums established R.E.M’s place at the top table of rock, meaning more people were listening – people perhaps unfamiliar with the sombre pockets of the band’s early catalogue.
Whatever the perceived – and inaccurate – backstory, Automatic impresses in its scope and daring. Certainly, the drone-like Drive was a surprise choice for first single and opening cut, as if R.E.M were wilfully avoiding the rock god game. Yes, there are mass-appeal singalongs (future karaoke staple Everybody Hurts, the skewered wit of Man On The Moon), but they share space with more thoughtful ruminations on ostracised Hollywood homosexuals (Monty Got a Raw Deal) and America’s decline under 12 straight years of Republican rule (Ignoreland).
To reiterate its significance, Automatic is sizeably more substantial than previous anniversary reissues, running to three CDs and a DVD, and one disc is particularly informative of the group’s working practices. Members regularly switched instruments during rehearsals, making the inclusion here of 20 previously unheard demos a real Aladdin’s cave. This is where we get intimate glimpses of the R.E.M machine: Mike’s Pop Song finds bassist Mills in light Monkees mode (a close relative to Near Wild Heaven) but not doing enough to make the final album. Meanwhile, guitarist
Buck instigates Pete’s Acoustic Idea and Peter’s New Song, both containing elements that lead to Wake Her Up, ultimately surfacing as the familiar The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.
R.E.M didn’t tour to promote the album, but another disc features their only show of 1992, a home-town set stripped of the slickness that had become their default setting.