R.E.M. - Automatic for the People
I was once told that art is like pulling down your pants in public: you bare yourself to everyone, get laughed at, and then, join the laughter. Art is, in a phrase, an act of faith.
Automatic for the People, released in 1992, is one of those records famous for its emotional nudity. It doesn’t shy away from its darkness, but faces it with emotionally bared lyrics, artistic integrity, and catchy melodies. From the dirge-acoustic “Drive,” to the Lion King sounding “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight,” to “Everybody Hurts”—now the ultimate ‘90s’ cliché.
The album also displays the unique qualities that define R.E.M: Peter Buck’s trusted Jingle-jangle arpeggiated guitar chords, which sound like Nick Drake stones being skipped off Johnny Marr lakes; Bill Berry’s tight snare drums; and Mike Mill’s low-end root note bass lines. Singer Michael Stipe drifts drunkenly over the energy with dreamy lyrics somewhere between coherence and dissolution. Occasional splashes of keyboards and string orchestrations deepen the slow moving meditations.
It’s a song I listened to a few hundred times in a row because it said everything it needed to without needing to say more.
And then there is “Nightswimming.” A simple piano-driven ballad about skinny-dipping on a random night, told artlessly and honestly. The piano here drifts anxiously, while Stipe muses, “They cannot see me naked,” making an emotional stew of considerable thickness. It’s a song I listened to a few hundred times in a row because it said everything it needed to without needing to say more.
When I was young, broke and stupid I indulged in the habit of P2P and Torrent websites. I would download discographies just to listen to them. The quality would be terrible, but still I would indulge freely, until I got caught, and stopped. Because I listened to stolen copy, I listened to it in the wrong track order. For a long time, I thought the album was in alphabetical order, with “Everybody Hurts” following “Drive.” That actually makes it harder for me to like this album as I hear it now – purchased – because the tracks tell an entirely different story, a story no less valuable than the one I heard first, but very different.
When we write, we’re taking our pants off too, looking at the digital water, and jumping in. It’s chilly, but swimming with R.E.M. makes me feel just the right kind of bare.
Until I deserve a quite night, where the moon is low, and streetlights reveal pictures.