Saturday, November 28, 2009

Record of the Moment: R.E.M. - Automatic for the People

Recently I have gotten into R.E.M., and I'm honest in saying that I never really heard them (in the way of placing a song to a band) before I somehow got the urge to pick up some of their records. Listening to them, I realize that I'd somehow heard many of these songs before, though I had never really associated them with R.E.M. Of course, that's changed now. R.E.M. is excellent stuff. I could have picked any assortment of records here (Murmur, Reckoning, Document could have been chosen), but I went with Automatic for the People in this instance.

This record is probably comes out as my favorite R.E.M. record thus far. Perhaps it is because ths record is a little more mid-tempo, and little more "folksy" than the others, but I connect to this record more than the others. But it's also easy to argue that R.E.M. were on the top of their game with Automatic for the People. R.E.M. wanted to change their musical direction, away from what they had done on the previous record, but it didn't happen. Perhaps it was just the residual of what they were doing previously, but the fact of the matter is the batch of songs on this record could not be expressed in any other way. Tracks like "Sweetness Follows" prowl along majestically in melancholy, while "Everybody Hurts" portrays a more personal, reserved melancholy.

Of course, the word repeated here is melancholy. This record is a lot slower, much more ruminative on "life" topics like love, life and death. Typically every songwriter's staple topics, but Stipe and co. execute much more effectively than your average dude. In some ways, this is a perfect alt-country record. No, R.E.M. were not an alt-country band, but this record shows those qualities and proves to be pretty damn catching and gripping. That is not to say that R.E.M. don't have a connection to the alt-country scene, as guitarist Peter Buck produced Uncle Tupelo's folk-revival masterpiece March 16-20, 1992. But this record sounds the part.

Drawing heavily from the folk tradition, most of the numbers are essentially ballads. "Nightswimming" and the like, you know. While this record has a copious amount of sadness and melancholy interwoven into it, those subject matters are never treated without dignity. And that is key. Too many groups "embrace the sadness" and become sappy affairs. At some point, take it too seriously and the whole thing becomes a massive caricature of itself. R.E.M. deftly avoid this problem, even as many of those ballads are accompanied by string sections written by John Paul Jones of Zep fame.

I can talk and talk about this song and that song and the way this part in the one song does this particular thing, but it's really the whole album experience that makes it. Something you just have to hear. And for that, R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People is my record of the moment.

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