The Enduring Empathy & Beauty of R.E.M.'s 'Automatic for the People'

R.E.M. photographed in 1993.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

R.E.M. photographed in 1993. 

On its 25th birthday, revisit the seminal album that changed the course of alt-rock—and the Athens, GA quartet’s career.

R.E.M. are an absolute anomaly, and, coincidentally, perhaps one of the biggest benefactors of the cultural sea-change that was the early 1990s alt-rock explosion.

In the mid-'80s the Athens, GA, quartet were already college radio stalwarts, having released seven albums of jangly pop-rock since forming in 1981, scoring a minor rock hit with “Radio Free Europe” and flirting with the Billboard charts. They toured North America and Europe ceaselessly, and, alongside groups like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., forged the American alternative rock sound of the decade -- eventually breaking through to the U.S. mainstream at decade's end, thanks in large part to Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits "The One I Love" (No. 9, 1987) and "Stand" (No. 6, 1989).

Then a new crop of bands arrived with a decidedly heavier sound, storming the Billboard charts. Many of those acts, from Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain to PJ Harvey, thought of Michael Stipe and Co. as major artistic influences, their elder statesmen, their encouraging older brothers. So R.E.M. were swept up by the rising tide of mainstream rock -- and provided an emotionally heavy, universally impactful counterweight to the guitar screech and angst then dominating the radio waves.

In ’91, R.E.M. released Out of Time, topping the charts on the strength of the Hot 100 top 5 hit single “Losing My Religion.” Their breakthrough was underway. Then in ‘92, midway through a 30-year-long run, the band unleashed their most crushingly gorgeous LP: Automatic for the People, 25 years old today (Oct. 6).

It’s a Southern gothic pop/rock masterpiece, and stands apart from the pack even moreso considering the dominant sound of the era. Musically, it couldn’t be further from MTV’s Headbangers Ball, and doesn't even have a ton in common with most of what was on 120 Minutes -- but it interpreted the alternative mood of the day for the easier listener, offering heartrending melodies and acoustic textures for the masses, without sacrificing its artistic cred. In an era of "sell out" panic, R.E.M. managed to become the rare act that walked the line throughout their career, maintaining their cred while parlaying their early success as college-radio darlings into global dominance.

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After its release on October 6, 1992, Automatic for the People shot to No. 1 on the U.K. charts and No. 2 in the U.S., ultimately selling over 18 million copies worldwide and producing many of the band’s best-known hits. It received Grammy noms for Album of the Year and Best Alternative Music Album, and singles “Man on the Moon” and “Everybody Hurts” garnered Grammy nods, too.

It’s a cultural touchstone -- these catchy songs were a gift to a network TV programmer with a desire to reach the hip kids, but without alienating mom and dad in middle America. Phoebe from Friends loved R.E.M., while "Everybody Hurts" would appear in a variety of shows, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Family Guy and The OfficeEminem would later sample Automatic’s opener “Drive,” and “Man on the Moon” would soundtrack the Jim Carrey-starring biopic of comedic genius Andy Kaufman, the subject of the Automatic hit. R.E.M. was everywhere.

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Automatic for the People also represented a shift in songwriting for R.E.M. Guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry wrote and recorded initial demos entirely without Stipe in the band’s Athens, Georgia, rehearsal space in June 1991. Initially, the band set to out to reconnect with their rock roots, a knee-jerk response to their ’91 release Out of Time. Ultimately, though, they fell back on a process that led to that album’s biggest hits -- the three bandmates swapped their usual instruments to mix it up, with Berry on bass, Mills playing piano or keyboards and Buck strumming the mandolin. It worked, again, but this time with compounding returns.

The band presented 30 demos to Stipe, then, in February ‘92, set out record another batch of demos at Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studios in New Orleans. The band trimmed the 30 demos to 12 tracks and recorded the final album with co-producer Scott Litt in studios ranging from Woodstock, NY to Miami and Seattle. Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones even provided string arrangements on four tracks.

Lyrically, Stipe addresses universal issues embedded in the human experience -- the passage of time, mortality, love, family and beyond. “Mortality is a theme that writers have chosen to work with throughout time,” Stipe said in a statement for the album’s 25th anniversary reissue, out November 10 via Craft Recordings. “It speaks of the fragility and beauty of life and living life to the fullest in the present moment. It happens all too quickly and we all know that.”

This mood, which is cohesive throughout the album, reaches its pinnacle on “Everybody Hurts.” It’s a tender ballad nodding to Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” with Stipe pleading over twinkling guitar and electrics keys, “When you think you’ve had too much of this life/ Hang on/ Everybody hurts sometimes…”

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Musically, the album is cohesive, too, with the arguable exception of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” (which the band later regretted including for that reason). It’s moody and dark, with acoustic guitars and keyboards in front, drums in back. “Man on the Moon,” one of the band’s most-beloved songs, tangoes with a midnight-under-the-stars sexiness, a heavy bass groove and echoing guitar lines leading Stipe’s memorable chorus. “Nightswimming” is a tender piano ballad with horns, flutes and Jones’ sweeping strings. It’s gorgeous and vivid -- you can almost see the lightning bugs flash over the water.

Automatic for the People launched R.E.M. to new heights. And when grunge came apart at the seams with drug casualties ending bands and careers -- most notably with the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, one of Stipe’s closest friends -- R.E.M. soldiered on, never falling victim to the pitfalls of stardom. Then in 1996 it all payed off: Based on the success of their early-‘90s releases, R.E.M., then the hottest free agent in the music business, signed a five-album contract with Warner Bros. Records worth an estimated $80 million -- the largest recording contract ever awarded, bigger than monster deals with superstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna. 

They’d go on to release seven more studio albums, plus numerous live LPs, soundtracks and compilations. After one of the most successful careers in modern rock music, R.E.M. would ultimately hang it up in 2011 after 30 years and over 85 million albums sold worldwide. With an enduring, creative spirit and empathetic, universal appeal, four nerds from the Athens, GA -- yeah, the guys with the mandolins -- defied the sound of their time to define the sound of their time.