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R.E.M. may have taken the scenic route to international fame, but if the only thing they ever released had been Automatic For The People, that lengthy trip would have still been worth it. After years of hip college-rock credibility, a springboard into stadiums and a huge international success with Out of Time, R.E.M. were on the verge of U2 size success, and with Automatic For The People, the world was theirs.
To release such a somber album after the stadium pop-rock of Green and the contrasting moods of Out Of Time was a bold move. It was totally at odds in terms of tone with the burgeoning grunge scene, but it shared some of that genre’s emotional authenticity. It also had broader appeal as moody teenagers, switched-on adults, and radio-loving housewives found something to admire in its generally downbeat themes. Much of the popularity of Automatic For The People can be put down to the fact that after years of penning ambiguous songs, Michael Stipe actually sat down and wrote a set of lyrics that were concise and clear, yet were still obscure enough to baffle those that spend far too long analysing what he was singing. Another decisive factor was the fact that despite being a comparatively bleak recording, Automatic For The People was R.E.M. at their most accessible and listener friendly. After years of college-rock obscurity it was if R.E.M. had suddenly realised that it was much more rewarding to achieve mass-acceptance rather than just the acceptance of slightly snobbish alt-rock fans. The songs on Automatic for the People aren’t just for the few, they are for the many. A song like “Everybody Hurts” needs to be heard by as many people as possible, and for that to happen a certain amount of commercial success needed to be achieved.
There are upbeat moments to be found on Automatic For The People, which are welcome as otherwise it could have resulted in a very depressing album indeed. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” and “Man On The Moon” lift the mood somewhat from the aching sorrow which pervades much of the rest of the album, and the slyly sexy “Star Me Kitten” hints at R.E.M.’s all too often suppressed playfulness.
Sometimes the downbeat nature of Automatic For The People can be a little stifling in places, but eventually the power of the tunes and the bands sense of mature dignity wins through. Yes, there may be cooler R.E.M. albums to listen to, but Automatic For The People is still their best.