It’s easy for the music world to take R.E.M. for granted, even though the band burst into mainstream fame last year with its No. 1 album, Out of Time. That record garnered the band three Grammys, including one for the single ”Losing My Religion,” while spawning pop hits big enough to get played in aerobics classes. Now R.E.M. offers the deeply moving and entirely idiosyncratic Automatic for the People, and to judge it simply as Out of Time’s follow-up would trivialize everything the group is about.
Automatic for the People, after all, was recorded by four guys who by now have stayed together — nobody died, nobody blustered off in a fit — for 12 years. They became college-radio faves with an inimitably homespun blend of perky strangeness and folklike melancholy, a sound spiced by wry comedy and ringing guitar, sweetened by unexpected bursts of soulful melody, and propelled with an alert rhythmic snap. That sound deepened as R.E.M. recorded eight albums — five for an independent label and three for a major — but the band’s gradual emergence on the charts (which began at the end of its indie era, with the 1987 top 10 success of “The One I Love”) never registered as any kind of musical turning point. The records only suggest that the group had grown a little older and seen more of life.
The new album clearly wasn’t crafted for the pop market. R.E.M.’s bass and keyboard player, Mike Mills, even calls the new songs ”weird,” though surely that’s only from the commercial point of view; more accurately, they tend to be rich and subdued, full of lush strings and deep feeling. The first single, ”Drive,” is somber, with minor-key acoustic guitar and lyrics obliquely mourning the restless choices made by kids with no plans for their future. There’s an oddly lively waltz, ”Try Not to Breathe,” about growing old; a gently droning meditation on the death of loved ones, ”Sweetness Follows”; and a slow, dark, almost groping number that’s unabashedly about sex, ”Star Me Kitten” (originally ”F— Me Kitten,” which is how the phrase is murmured in the song; in a small victory for censorship, the title was changed to avoid what would otherwise be an unwarranted ”Parental Advisory” sticker).
Subjects like these show the band moving into more personal territory than ever before, with clearer, less ambiguous emotion. Even the sole political number (”Ignoreland,” one of the few up-tempo tracks on the album) is something new: It’s a scathing attack on Republicans but mixed to sound as if it’s being shouted from a distance, and whimsically defused by singer Michael Stipe’s admission that, though he offers no solutions, ”I feel better having screamed.”
The record’s biggest surprise, however, is its one surefire pop hit, ”Everybody Hurts,” an almost unbearably passionate argument against suicide. It sounds like a gigantic arena transfiguration of a ’50s rock ballad, with Stipe’s voice pleading over triplets and massed strings, and surely will be played on radio for generations to come, right next to unforgettable anthems like ”Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It should also complete R.E.M.’s conquest of pop by reaching the Adult Contemporary market that lies beyond rock. But that’s only an incidental part of what may become the band’s greatest triumph — reaching everyone in the world while still sounding like no one but themselves. A