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R.E.M.: Automatic for the People (25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)

R.E.M.: Automatic for the People (25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)

Automatic for the People is a triumph of Americana.

R.E.M.: Automatic for the People (25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)

4.5 / 5

Originally released in 1992, R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People is a triumph of Americana, the kind that courses through such Southern writers as Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, and McCullers. It is a dark, mournful and reflective work of grand, cathedral-like ambition, yet it’s also as intimate as a dusty cupboard full of family mementos. It is that rare album whose mode is the miniature made monumental—stadium rock for quiet bedrooms. On the occasion of the album’s 25th anniversary, Craft Recordings has issued an expanded edition that solidifies its reputation.

Recorded mostly in Woodstock, New York with Scott Litt, with whom the band had worked since 1987’s Document, the album featured orchestral arrangements by none other than poly-instrumentalist John Paul Jones, best known as the bassist and keyboardist for Led Zeppelin. This is immediately apparent from the opener, “Drive,” one of the spookiest songs R.E.M. ever recorded, as well as on such songs as the haunting “Sweetness Follows.”

Elsewhere, the band travels through such mini-experiments as the demo-like “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” (originally titled “Pakiderm”), which presages New Adventures. The 10cc-inspired “Star Me Kitten” has a post-rock feel, and “Find the River” suggests, of all people, Jimmy Buffet. Yet these many voices cohere, with the political, hard-rocking “Ignoreland,” somehow invoking the band’s future and past.

Michael Stipe’s voice is at its best here exploiting the full potential of his range and shifting emotional registers from pleading to coy to somber to assertive. His bandmates are all up to the task as well, with not-so-secret weapon Mike Mills providing inspired, extraordinary backup vocals and playing a host of instruments throughout. Bill Berry’s drumming is as always on point, and Peter Buck’s guitar is as adaptable as Stipe’s voice, always providing the appropriate emotional texture.

The deluxe edition includes such goodies as a 1992 Greenpeace benefit show at Athens, Georgia’s 40 Watt Club. In addition to Automatic tracks, notably a faster, aggressive version of “Drive,” this “unpracticed, unrehearsed” show (in Stipe’s words) delivers such catalog highlights as “Losing My Religion,” “Begin the Begin” and “Radio Free Europe,” as well as covers of the Troggs’ “Love is All Around” and Iggy Pop’s “Funtime.”

But the real treat is the third disc, featuring album demos including prize songs and experiments left off the official release. “Mike’s Pop Song” is an absolute gem, sung by Mike Mills and featuring his characteristic melodic intuition and sweet writing sensibility. “C to D Slide 13” is a charming, lyric-less version of “Man on the Moon” with wordless singing by Stipe; the jangly “Peter’s New Song” sounds like a cousin to this.

Similarly, “10K Minimal” is a pre-lyrics version of “Find the River.” It’s fascinating to listen to Stipe humming and intoning along with nearly finished instrumental tracks. These demos also demonstrate how much each member contributed to melodies—no wonder we find “Bill’s Acoustic” along “Mike’s Pop Song” and “Peter’s Acoustic Idea.” Certain tracks reveal the group’s musical humor: “Arabic Feedback” and “Afterthought” have a shuffly, Muzak vibe that hardly gets in the way of how unmistakably they sound just like R.E.M.

Disc three is rounded out by an exemplary song that just didn’t fit on the album. “Photograph,” written with Natalie Merchant, would not have added to Automatic’s sonic palette; “Devil Rides Backwards,” on the other hand, would have been an intriguing addition. With its tasteful piano, acoustic guitar and fable-like lyrics, it has the kind of rustic-Gothic vibe that the album exploits so well. But where to sequence it? This will doubtlessly fuel many fan discussions.

This is a deluxe edition that speaks softly and carries a big stick. There is nothing grandiose about it, just a quiet celebration from a band that has always done things tastefully, even when they were breaking up. Automatic for the People has aged well, and has always been a preternaturally ancient-sounding beast, an excavation of old sounds in order to forge the new for bands to follow. It is a mark of its quality that it still sounds more like the future than its successors. It’s the kind of music that feels like it’s always been around, lurking, waiting to be played, music that swells from the depths of a country where hope and sorrow are a common currency.

    • Label:
      Craft Recordings
    • Release Date:
      November 10, 2017

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