It’s been more than four years since Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills called it quits (and Bill Berry just before that) and already I miss what was one of America’s best rock bands. I grew up listening to them – first on a low power college radio station in Greensboro, NC in my teenage years. Not long after that they blew up with “Radio Free Europe” and appeared on MTV then everywhere else. While the band’s initial emphasis on abstracted southern-isims was charming, they evolved into a promoter of global issues. In the process, modern alternative rock as we know it developed into the new pop.
My interest in the bands artistic direction started to wane just as Micheal Stipe’s persona became bigger than life. Images of a frail looking Stipe fueled all sorts of nasty rumors, the least of which was that he had contracted AIDS. His poor health quickly overshadowed any news from the rest of the band. The fact that the band changed its direction during recording sessions for their 8th studio album fueled even more rumors.
Vegetarian queer artist or not, Stipe was an interesting personality who slowly revealed facts about himself, perhaps as a means to counterbalance the media speculation about his personal life. In the process of loosing some of the mystery that made him as commanding a personality as Morrissey or Prince, it might have been easy to overlook the fact that the rest of the band was going through changes too.
It was a strange time.
Real crisis or not, hardships can produce some of the greatest art. Under these strange conditions, the last in a string of great R.E.M. albums with producer Scott Litt would be created. After 1991’s Out of Time the band had become a Top 40 staple. It’s not that I disliked the success the band earned through the ’80s, but the spooky Southern Gothic introspection that I loved was all but gone.
Then came Automatic For the People, possibly the band’s finest album and one of my favorites. Automatic.. contained everything I liked about R.E.M. approach to songwriting – rustic tales steeped in the stain of vintage Americana. Automatic.. also featured stripped down nearly acoustic performance by Buck, Mills and Berry. In fact, they would be joined by what amounted to an small chamber orchestra of players with various string instruments, double bass and saxophone. Scott Litt himself was said to have played an instrument or two during the album’s recording.
The lush Litt production topped off a string of successful albums that started with Document in 1987. Automatic For the People was a joy to listen to for technical and artistic reasons. The clear and concise placement of instruments and the somewhat isolated up front vocals made it fun to listen to in headphones.
Though you didn’t need headphones however to enjoy the range of emotional songs that recalled the 1960s.
Even the most awkward sounding tracks like “Ignoreland”, a uptempo political romp had its charms and became a kind of hit despite not being an official single. The album was at it’s most spectacular when things were slowed down (as on most of the album). “Star Me Kitten”, “Nightswimming” and “Find the River” were some of the finest R.E.M. songs ever.
There was so much on this album that was radio friendly, that much of it was released as singles in some form or another. “Drive”, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”, “Ignoreland” and “Everybody Hurts” were just a few of the successful tracks. While none of these songs made it to #1 on the mainstream charts two (“Drive” and “Man on the Moon” were at or near the top of the Modern Rock charts. “Everybody Hurts” would become the theme song for a whole new youth generation of slackers to emo rockers.
It would not be fair to say that R.E.M.’s career trajectory went downhill after this album. They had the courage experiment, sometimes with success but more often with mixed results towards the end. You gotta hand it to a successful band who ‘s not willing to rest on their sonic laurels. Stipe’s health improved (he often flaunted his fit new physique on stage) and the band carried on into the new century. Even if they had called it quits after Automatic for the People, Micheal, Peter, Buck and Bill’s legacy would still be influencing a lot of the new music we hear today.