R.E.M.’s 1992 masterpiece, Automatic for the People, is the first album ever remixed with the technology, best known for its powerful surround-sound in movie theaters. Available only on the four-disc deluxe anniversary package, the Dolby mix offers “incredible depth, dimension and clarity,” says the company. As guitarist Peter Buck put it to Billboard, “I was kind of blown away at what it sounded like.”
Assuming the sonic enhancement sounds as stunning as advertised (that Blu-ray disc was not sent to reviewers), the reissue is well worth the investment. What sold me on the set, out today on Craft Recordings, were the demos. An hour of previously unreleased versions gives us what we’ve never had: a revealing genesis of one of the finest rock statements of the last quarter-century. Automatic for the People is R.E.M. at its most astonishing and artistic. And now we have the early sketches.
For a record so thematically entrenched in death, it’s these indispensable demos that underscore the evolution of R.E.M.’s best work. Free from the vault after 25 years, for instance, is “C to D Slide 13,” a mandolin-driven first draft of “Man on the Moon.” Michael Stipe hums da-da-da-da in place of the achingly melodic chorus; his lyrical search hadn’t yet begun. “I thought the song was complete,” Stipe recently told NPR. “I didn’t hear a voice on it. I didn’t think it needed it.” That judgment is left to us to decide.
Elsewhere on the demos disc, listen for the lack of Stipe’s giddy yelps on “Wake Her Up,” the foundation for what would become the frantic singalong “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.” And later, the lonely percussive Casio clicks of “Michael’s Organ” smack like a baseball bat; the track would live on as the backbone of “Everybody Hurts.”
Demos aside, the official recording of the album began on March 5, 1992, at Kingsway Studio in New Orleans, beginning with “Drive.” Its bitter snarl is vaguely seething as it gradually builds toward a chorus that never comes. The song is a tremendous studio piece, but failed to translate onstage. On Disc 2 of the reissue, featuring R.E.M.’s only live show that year, Stipe dryly tells the audience that the band is “unpracticed and unrehearsed.” That’s somewhat evident on “Drive,” which comes off oddly playful and robotically upbeat.
Back to the work itself: Automatic for the People is a moody, heart-wrenching document antithetical to R.E.M.’s aesthetic up to that point. It’s devastating, profound. Very little resembles anything from the band’s previous 10 years, and that was intentional. There’s less jangle, more strings. There’s the groaning cello of “Sweetness Follows,” the suicidal plea of “Try Not to Breathe,” the crushing melancholy of “Nightswimming.”
Automatic for the People is an album about the pains of loss and inevitability. “Nothing is going my way” may be its final words, yet there’s a prevailing sense of determination throughout.
With 25 years’ worth of hindsight, it’s the refrain from “Everybody Hurts” that speaks loudest: “Hold on.”