My Favourite Albums: Automatic for the People
I love Stewart Lee. I think he’s one of, if not the funniest comedian working today (as in in the world). But if there’s one thing I disagree with him on, it’s REM. In an interview in May last year in which he named his 13 favourite albums ever, he chose their second album, Reckoning, but in doing so said “I don’t think there’s any artist that I’ve ever liked who’s disappointed me more than REM.” In his opinion, their earlier albums, released on the independent label IRS before their move to Warner Bros in 1988, were much better, primarily because you couldn’t understand what Michael Stipe was singing, and that when you could understand what he was singing later on, “you realise it’s terrible pretentious rubbish.”
Now I’ve listened to a bit of REM’s IRS stuff, and a lot of their Warner Bros stuff. And I tend to agree with the usual narrative arc of their career – early stuff excellent, early Warner Bros stuff excellent, then diminishing returns after that, apart from the last album, Collapse Into Now, which I quite enjoyed. I also agree that their peak was with Automatic for the People.
OK, so I haven’t quite gone in depth on their early stuff yet. I’ve not listened to Murmur, their first album, which a lot of critics (presumably including Stew) say is their finest. But I think the great thing about Automatic for the People isn’t necessarily that it’s their best creation in a creative sense – it may not be. But the truth is that their IRS stuff, as good as it is, isn’t pop music. It’s pure alternative rock. Automatic for the People isn’t, and I think it’s stronger for that.
Think of it on a sliding scale. On the left, you’ve got pure art, done purely for the sake of it. Obviously it’s not totally objective, but that is where the best stuff generally is. On the right, you’ve got art for the sake of making money – One Direction, most West End musicals and Michael McIntyre. Personally, my favourite stuff isn’t necessarily to the extreme left of this scale – I tend to like music that straddles the divide the most, albeit certainly more to the left on the scale than the right. I’m willing to concede that it’s not objectively the best, but equally it tends to be the most celebrated music in terms of relatively mainstream critical acclaim – you could consider under this heading Radiohead’s OK Computer, early Queen, most of Led Zeppelin’s stuff, the Beatles’ highest rated albums (Sgt Pepper, the White Album, Revolver etc) and Muse’s best albums. And, of course, Automatic for the People.
The appeal of the album is that it has brilliant songs that you can sing along to. I know that songs you can sing along to normally gives you visions of Celine Dion, Westlife and anything overseen by Simon Cowell, but that doesn’t mean all music which you can sing along to is awful. But I do think some of the music on the far left of our scale, in my opinion, suffers from the tyranny of structurelessness – an obvious exception would be something like Thunder Road by Springsteen, which benefits from not being verse-chorus-verse. REM are the masters of making great music within that traditional structure, adding in political and cultural elements. Effectively, it’s like pop music but for intellectuals.
However, there is a problem with this – it has meant that some of the best songs on Automatic for the People, including one in particular (do I need to say?), have been massacred by the mainstream, overplayed and over-covered. And that’s always going to have an effect on how much you like a song or album. It’s nice liking something exclusive – I love the fact that no one else I know loves Dire Straits. Some take it to extraordinary lengths by only liking stuff that no one else has heard of, but I don’t intend on going that far, though I can understand the appeal.
But for me, Automatic for the People remains one of my favourite albums ever, simply because it’s good enough to escape being torn apart and having songs covered by G4, Paul Potts, the Helping Haiti collective and whoever else Cowell’s roped into ruining That Song That Everyone Knows.
I remember the day this album becoming something special to me. I’ve always liked a few of the songs on the album, but as an album, it didn’t mean much until I switched it on one day when I was quite depressed – I chose it because it is a dark, quiet album, matched to a dark cover, but with enough up-tempo songs to possibly progressively lift my mood, which it did. I’ve loved it ever since – I might have listened to it previously, but I genuinely discovered some great songs that day.
It starts with arguably the darkest, edgiest song on the album, Drive, before moving on to Try Not to Breathe, musically more upbeat but juxtaposed to lyrics about death. Death and pain, and overcoming that pain, is a prominent theme during the album. That Song That Is Always Played On The Radio is the best-known for that, hence its use in association with various sad events, like someone not getting through on the X Factor or something. But there’s also the beautiful Sweetness Follows which is along the same lines.
But equally, it would be wrong to say the whole thing is about death. One of the stand-out songs on the album is The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite – not necessarily a stand-out for being good (in fact, the band don’t particularly like it, although I do), but for not fitting in at all, by being the most up-tempo song on the whole album. There is also the vitriolic Ignoreland, a damning criticism of the Reagan and Bush (I) era in American politics, the quite but erotic Star Me Kitten (read Fuck Me Kitten), and another up-tempo number, the mandolin-driven Monty Got a Raw Deal, written about the tragic actor Montgomery Clift.
For me, though, a lot of the magic rests on the last three songs. First, there’s Man On The Moon, written about the alternative comedian Andy Kaufman (and probably the thing most responsible for bringing him into public attention this side of the Atlantic), It is arguably the second best-known song on the album behind That Song That Everyone Cries To But Still Sing Along, and another on this album that could claim to be one of REM’s best songs. After this, you have two slow numbers that could have feasibly closed the album. First, there’s the beautiful simplicity of Nightswimming – just Michael, Mike Mills on piano and a string arrangement that fits in so well you barely notice it’s there. Nightswimming, about innocence and memory, was chosen to close REM’s greatest Warner Bros hits collection In Time, which I think works well in that role, but here it is followed Find the River, a terribly under-appreciated song that I only discovered from listening to the album and is now one of my personal REM favourites.
That’s the great thing about REM albums. There are always little gems that keep popping up during albums that you don’t quite expect. What makes Automatic for the People so special and outstanding is that every song on there is a gem – simple but effective. That’s what makes it a little better from the likes of Green, Out of Time and New Adventures In Hi-Fi – all great albums, but not quite as good as this.
This is why, although REM have continued to put out greatest hits albums, they’re not a band you can truly discover in a greatest hits album – you have to listen to the studio albums to fully appreciate what a brilliant band they were. Sorry Stew, but they were.