R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People: the story of a commercial miracle

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After their debut with Warner in 1988 and the first approaches to the star system, R.E.M. played the Joker with the mandolins of Losing My Religion, the hit that brought them to the worldwide charts and the Grammys. Anyone, after years of hard work and infinite apprenticeship, would have stopped in front of the mirror, enjoying the prizes and the glory, but not the band from Athens: in October 1992 (just one year after Out of Time) they returned with another album that pushed forward the construction of their own myth.

One of the fundamental records of the 90s. This would be enough to define Automatic for the People and what it meant for the rock scene.


The transition from cult band to independent group capable of selling millions of records was apparently managed best by Michael Stipe and his companions, who managed to overcome what usually is a dizzying transition for anyone: ultimately, the misty and fascinating lyrics were still supported by a musical background that kept a low profile and didn’t get too diluted in mainstream contamination.

Stipe’s cryptic lyrics were even more stressed by the different approach that the band decided to have for the album of the definitive consecration: Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry dedicated themselves to record the musical demos for the singer, who intervened only in a second moment.

The work done by R.E.M. catapulted Stipe in sounds more rarefied than in the past: the songs were more suggestive and the lyrics seemed to follow them, giving more importance to the sound of the words than to their content and meaning.

This time there was no room for Shiny Happy People: Among tales of discomfort and accusations (Drive, Ignoreland), complicated relationships (Star Me Kitten), derailed careers (Monty Got A Raw Deal, Man On The Moon), pain and loneliness (Try Not To Breathe, Everybody Hurts), loss and regret (Sweetness Follows), Automatic For The People condenses a dark atmosphere that permeates the album and is barely lightened by The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, apparently the only solar track.

Stipe used the album to confess the anguish of no longer feeling completely free, after the resounding success of Out of Time. The burden of being a rockstar was heavier than he thought, the constant changes of direction and the sense of precariousness find some peace only in the serene and melancholic tail of Nightswimming and Find The River.

Automatic For The People destabilised many fans, who found few connections with the previous album, but still rewarded R.E.M. with over fifteen million copies sold, which is almost a miracle for an album which is not commercial at all.

With Out Of Time, R.E.M. succumbed to the fascination of the infinite possibilities offered by a Major label (KRS-One, Katie Pierson, Paisley Park Studios), with the following Monster they gave voice to their most rock instinct. In the middle, Automatic for the People represented their best hybrid nature: a indie band temporarily employed into mainstream.

The fascination that after decades this album still manages to exercise is due to its persuasive acoustic dress and its ability to photograph nostalgia for what is lost and how much you can still lose. Because certain passages of life are inevitable.


Luca Divelti writes stories of music, cinema and TV on Rock’n’Blog and Auralcrave. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.