R.E.M. has enjoyed success that is not typical of their brand of “nerd” or “college” rock. Though they began over 20 years ago with the album Murmur (1983), R.E.M. exploded into the mainstream with Out of Time (1991) single “Losing My Religion.” R.E.M.’s early 90’s period has the hallmarks of the band’s career. While Out of Time made R.E.M. famous, Automatic for the People made them a legacy.

automaticcover.jpgR.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (1992) was their 8th studio album release and is to this date one of their most successful, selling over four million copies. Featuring lead singer Peter Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and (now former) drummer Bill Berry, the album features twelve tracks devoted to a range of topics from death (“Everybody Hurts,” “Try Not to Breathe”) to skinnydipping (“Nightswimming”).

Far from an upbeat album, it has its moments of sunshiny goodness: “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” is bouncy and bright (although it does tend to push Stipe to the limit of his vocal range), and the famous tribute to Andy Kaufman “Man on the Moon” is a bit more upbeat and well-received. However, it becomes clear very quickly that this is not the mood the band was going for, as both songs are placed on far sides of the album from each other, separated by songs like the hit anti-suicide anthem “Everybody Hurts,” the somber melodic guitar-and-orchestra piece “Sweetness Follows,” and the droning hums and interspersed guitar of “Star Me Kitten.”

Though it doesn’t stay true to it, Automatic is at least mainly about death. It certainly does not back away from dark lyrics and heavy orchestra arrangements that drag the music into an almost hypnotic depressive state – but, impressively, it does it in a good way. It doesn’t hurt that orchestra arrangements by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones are on quite a few of the tracks. Without these, it would have been too easy to have empty sad undistinguished music versus the full soothing melancholy it achieves.

And here, fifteen years later, the album proves to be as timeless as it could possibly hope to be. Relevant, heart-wrenching, and lovely, it may be a treasure of acquired taste, but it is a treasure nonetheless. That’s why when my copy became too scratched from hours upon hours of playtime, I bought it again. It is more than a mainstay – it is essential.

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