Album Assignments: Automatic For The People

Looking through the liner notes of Automatic For The People, there’s one credit that jumps out at me: “Orchestral arrangements by John Paul Jones”. The John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin? Yep, that’s the one. Turns out that Jones was an expert arranger way before Zep came along — for example, the very creative string arrangement on the Stones’ 1967 song “She’s A Rainbow” is Jones’ work.

He certainly did a wonderful job for R.E.M., because this time listening to Automatic, I found myself really moved by the album’s use of strings. The first time we hear them is midway through the build of “Drive” — they swell underneath the first drumbeats, and when that jagged guitar comes in, there’s the whole ensemble, decorating the song’s eerie structure with perfect counterpoint. The solo acoustic guitar in the first half of the song creates an intimate mood, but once the cellos and violins come in, intimacy turns to grandeur, elevating Michael Stipe’s echoing voice and cryptic words.

Those same players make “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” a richer and more fun experience, but they don’t become essential until Jones’ other two songs: “Everybody Hurts” and “Nightswimming.” In the former, Stipe drops his usual penchant for lyrical mystery to sing a straightforward pep talk in an aching, plaintive tone. His voice and the lovely melody make the message a plenty strong one, but like in “Drive”, R.E.M. holds the strings until a couple of minutes into the track. When they arrive, they’re the foundation for the song to expand outward into a warm wave of reassurance. And then we return to the first instrumental configuration: picking pattern on electric guitar, wash of organ chords, soft percussion. Soon the strings return, just a subtle support, and at last they are the wings that take us into a brighter sky, with Stipe behind us all the way, urging us to hold on.

Album cover from Automatic For The People

And then there’s “Nightswimming”. Where “Everybody Hurts” gives me chills with the power of its distilled love and encouragement, “Nightswimming” I find utterly piercing and poignant in its ability to capture both childhood memories and how it feels to recall them. Unlike the other songs with a Jones arrangement, “Nightswimming” opens with strings, just for a few seconds, pulling back the curtain on an exquisite duet of piano and vocal. Stipe’s lyrics paint vivid scenes: the photograph on the dashboard, the shirtless boy, the water’s edge. And after “the moon is low tonight,” the strings return, dancing an elegant gavotte around the duet. “These things they go away,” he sings, “replaced by everyday,” and man oh man is that true, in that our adult experiences rarely attain the intense highs and lows of adolescence. But at the same time, this song reminds me that those feelings still exist inside us, ready to be called up by a photograph, a scent in the air, or a haunting oboe melody backed by just the right mix of piano and strings.

As great as Jones’ work is on the album, I think my very favorite use of strings comes in a song he didn’t touch: “Sweetness Follows.” On that song, Knox Chandler’s cello just plays a very simple pattern, over and over again, turning into a drone worthy of the Velvet Underground. It lifts up a little at the chorus, and more and more each time, but otherwise it is just a relentless, deep, thrumming floor under the song. Atonal, feedback-drenched guitars contribute to that VU feeling too, but where Lou Reed or Nico would render the lyrics in a distanced monotone, Michael Stipe cannot help but evoke emotion. He’s singing about death, and the strange bereavement of someone mostly estranged from who they’ve lost. Under that complicated sorrow, I found the cello’s depth and simplicity acutely resonant.

Resonance is, I think, another theme of this album, right alongside death. The album is full of tributes at various levels, combining to show how we are affected by each other’s works and lives. “Sidewinder” is of course a musical nod to The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, and Stipe riffs in falsetto on the song’s famous opening notes. “Drive” can’t help but echo David Essex’s “Rock On” — “Hey kids, rock and roll.” A little more buried under the surface is the fact that the lush layers of backing vocals in “Star Me Kitten” were a loving imitation of the same technique in 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”.

Automatic For The People has plenty of real-world resonances too — a couple of the songs are straight-up celebrity homages. “Monty Got A Raw Deal” thematically recalls “The Right Profile” from London Calling, musing on the vintage tragedy of Montgomery Clift. And of course there’s “Man On The Moon”, a fantastic and mysterious tribute to Andy Kaufman. I was, I think, a little too young to get in on the Kaufman joke while it was happening, and have never really picked it up since, but people who get Andy seem to think this song gets him too. I’m particularly reminded of a David Letterman interview from 1993 in which he extols Kaufman’s qualities and mentions how “Man On The Moon” made him miss Andy all the more.

As for me, I found the most resonance in “Ignoreland.” Automatic For The People comes from about the same era as The End Of The Innocence, and it shares the same sense of exasperation with 12 years of Reagan and Bush. Where Henley takes every target one by one, Stipe sprays vitriol at “these bastards” all at once:

Brooding duplicitous, wicked and able, media-ready
Heartless and labeled, super U.S. citizen, super achiever
Mega ultra power dosing, relax, defense defense defense defense

And later:

Calculate the capital
Up the republic my skinny ass, TV tells a million lies
The paper’s terrified to report anything that isn’t handed
On a presidential spoon, I’m just so profoundly frustrated
By all this, so fuck you, man

Mind you, where Henley makes sure to enunciate every syllable, the above is all delivered in a Stipey mumble and covered over by vocal processing and aggressive instruments, but it sure does strike a chord today. 1992 was twenty-seven years ago now, but this song hasn’t aged a minute. I think I need “Everybody Hurts” to tell me to hold on again.

2 thoughts on “Album Assignments: Automatic For The People

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