R.E.M.’s best, with digressions to Bob Mould, Richard Thompson and Van Halen

Two guys I know from soccer circles who happen to be well-grounded in music are debating this point: Is R.E.M.’s Automatic from the People masterful or mediocre?

I see Brian’s pointEverybody Hurts was a little trite and overplayed. I frankly thought the video was an overwrought piece of crap. That and the odd lead-off single Drive are enough to leave a bad impression.

But I’m leaning toward Dave’s take. I’m swayed a little by an old review I read, probably in the late, great magazine Musician, positing Automatic as a glimpse into autumn and middle age. R.E.M. ponders death (Try Not to Breathe, Sweetness Follows) while cherishing the innocent fun that we don’t have to let go (Nightswimming, the album’s emotional centerpiece). Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I see the finale Find the River as the resolution of a quest for something permanent. Certainly wouldn’t be the first time a rock song used a river as a metaphor for timelessness. See All This Time, Sting.

Automatic is simply greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not flawless, mind you, and I’m not a big fan of the singles. If I didn’t think Andy Kaufman was the most overrated comedian of our lifetime, perhaps I’d like Man on the Moon a bit more. I like Ignoreland, but it’s an odd fit here.

Dig beyond the singles, and you get an album that combines sweetness and melancholy like few others. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

(Coincidence alert: John Paul Jones did some string arrangements on this album. As I type, VH1 Classic is playing a Led Zep live video of Rock and Roll in which Jonesy’s total screen time is maybe five seconds. Poor guy gets no respect.)

Here’s the biggest selling point for Automatic: R.E.M., from what I’ve heard, hasn’t come close to this since. Automatic was the last in a classic series of albums, with Green the only release that isn’t intriguing throughout. With Monster, Michael Stipe dropped his affable Southern art-rock personality and got a little weird. What’s the Frequency, Kenneth was supposedly some sort of blistering critique of the media but made no sense whatsoever — fine for some of their deliberately abstract works in the ’80s but not good when they’re actually trying to say something. I liked Let Me In, a beautifully chaotic belated plea to Kurt Cobain to turn back from the brink.

Since then, I’ve enjoyed the occasional quirky song like Low Desert. But as much as I love early R.E.M. and share that regional pride of sharing their hometown, they’ve dropped off my radar. Here’s hoping they can make a comeback with the next one.

From Dave’s blog, we have some fun digressions. First, check out his interview with Bob Mould. Yes, that Bob Mould. Dave adds some terrific music to his podcast, mostly Mould but with one selection from Richard Thompson, coincidentally from the album he released when I interviewed him back in college.

(Another odd coincidence: My co-worker Whitney is a big Bob Mould fan. Guess who’s on VH1 Classic now? No, not Bob Mould. Whitney, talking about Wang Chung for one of those 80s compilations. This is getting weird.)

From Mould’s blog, you get a link to some YouTube footage of Van Halen in Greensboro. At least, I think it’s Van Halen. It might be Spinal Tap at the Air Force base in Seattle.

Be sure to read the comments at YouTube, always good for a few hysterical Web-argument howlers. Apparently, one guy thinks the keyboard can’t be in C# because Eddie is Van Halen’s keyboard player. If you can decipher that, let me know.

You have to love those wildly arrogant Web posters who are so astoundingly wrong. I’m tempted to find a Rush board and insist that Geddy Lee isn’t the keyboardist, he’s the drummer.


5 thoughts on “R.E.M.’s best, with digressions to Bob Mould, Richard Thompson and Van Halen

  1. Thanks, Beau, but that was Mould’s version of a Richard Thompson song. It was on a tribute album that came out in 1994. The vocals are pretty similar, though.

  2. Thanks for the link. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I think “Automatic” is mediocre. I’m just not blown away by it, but part of that goes back to how my tastes always lead me back to their older stuff. Hell, I’d rather listen to the bootleg of their earliest known recording more than most stuff released in the last 10-15 years.

    And I’m disappointed that the first thing they have released from the 2008 planned album was a mellow, acoustic song they paired with Anderson Cooper’s documentary on global warming. I understand their interest in the politics of the issue, but I’m fearing the raucous sound previewed in the Dublin non-shows will get watered down in the studio.

  3. I lack the technical wherewithal, but I always thought someone should mash up the Star Wars trilogies to the R.E.M. discography.

    Strange idea, I know, but it makes a little sense if you start with Out of Time and move chronologically forward for the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI), then go back to the beginning of their career for the recent trilogy (Episodes I-III).

    I still realize I haven’t convinced anybody, but in this model, Automatic for the People isn’t just their best album; it’s their The Empire Strikes Back.

  4. And now, a comment more on point.

    Not a big fan of “Everybody Hurts” (too anthemic and earnest, the “Hand in My Pocket” of its time) or “Ignoreland” (lazily written and immediately dated), but the rest of the album is quite strong and flows well.

    Of their music from 1990 onward, I think I prefer Stipe/R.E.M. introspective, moody, and radio-unfriendly. The closest they’ve come since Automatic was “E-Bow the Letter,” which I found wonderfully weird.

  5. Dave — Whoops. No wonder it sounded a little different than I remembered.

    Brian — When it comes to environmental rock, they’re no Midnight Oil. But who is?

    Neel — Ignoreland is indeed a little sloppy.

    The solid R.E.M. political songs tend to be vague exhortations (Finest Worksong, Begin the Begin) or portraits (Welcome to the Occupation).

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