52. REM — Automatic for the People

In January 1999, I was on assignment for my first job at Nabisco Headquarters in New Jersey. I was driving a 1986 Lincoln Mk VII that I’d purchased for a song the previous August. I used to drive up from my Philadelphia apartment early Monday Morning and drive back Friday evening. One Friday that month a blizzard struck. All my colleagues advised against trying to get home, but I was 22 and stupid, so I went anyway. Somewhere in the 130’s of the Garden State Parkway, I tried to pass a snowplow, fishtailed, panicked, over-corrected, and smacked into the Jersey wall. My Lincoln was totalled and I spent eight hours getting home.

The song on the stereo when I crashed? “Everybody Hurts” by REM.

You can laugh, it’s funny.

For most of REM’s creative period, I didn’t like them particularly much. I didn’t like them because I really only knew them from the songs that punched them into the early 90’s zeitgeist: “Shiny Happy People” and “Losing My Religion,” from 1991’s Out of Time, which I don’t own. I still dislike those songs, “Shiny…” for it’s cheap, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” sentimentality, and “Losing…” for the maudlin cellos doing what guitars should be doing (and not, as you might think, for the ideas expressed in the song. We’ve all been there).

So because of those two songs, I unfairly slagged REM, rising each time to greater and greater acts of rhetorical defiance. I did so while remaining utterly ignorant of the band’s 80’s output. I spent more time than I care to think about pretending that I didn’t like “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” because I could not admit to liking an REM song. Naturally, this could not continue, so for a brief period in the late 90’s I made an small effort to keep up with REM. I started with Automatic for the same reason I bought Nevermind around the same time: it was the earliest REM album I knew the name of.

I should dislike this album, as most of the songs swim in the kind of orchestral arrangements that ruined “Losing My Religion” for me, and most of the lyrics sink deep into the same vein of mopery. But I don’t. The layers of strings don’t nauseate me. The emotional heaviness doesn’t repel me. On the contrary, I can drink deep of the soft blues of “Drive” or “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” and enjoy the taste.

And since I brought it up, let me say that making fun of “Everybody Hurts” smacks of hipper-than-thou posturing. Yes, the lyrics are simple, and so is the arrangement. But to call that “pseudo-inspirational Hallmark-greeting-card bullcrap”   is just dull internet snark. How many Hallmark “Feel Better” cards come anything close to saying “When you think you’ve had too much of this life…hold on”? People don’t send cards on suicide watch. A little treacle never hurt nobody.

All that said, this album, like a lot of post-stardom REM, is just too ponderous for regular listening. It’s as though the band felt the need to justify themselves as legitimate musicans, not just flash-in-the-pan alterna-ragers. It makes me think of Elvis trading songs with Sinatra on TV to show that he was a for-real singer. Yeah, the band accomplished something good with it, but somehow this labor became the norm, rather than the deviation.

Grade: OK 
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