And the night, the night is yours alone
When you're sure you've had enough
Of this life, well hang on
Don't let yourself go
'Cause everybody cries
Everybody hurts sometimes
Sometimes everything is wrong
Now it's time to sing along
Starting production while Out of Time, their previous effort, shot up the charts, the band initially sought out a harder, more aggressive sound similar to that of their late 80's output as a means of offsetting Out of Time's Lighter and Softer approach, only to find themselves short on ideas. Consequently, at the suggestion of guitarist Peter Buck, they instead shifted towards a more acoustically-driven, melancholic sound featuring string arrangements by John Paul Jones: bleak in both sound and tone, the album ended up becoming the band's darkest, with lyrics focusing on themes of mourning, morality, loss, nostalgia, and depression, fueled by the members of R.E.M. approaching their 30's and consequently no longer being young adults. This had the unfortunate side-effect of making audiences think that Michael Stipe was dying— erroneously drawing comparisons to Queen's similarly dark and brooding album Innuendo from the previous year and its thematic focus on Freddie Mercury's losing battle with AIDS— but with time the false assumptions dissipated, aided by the band constantly being open about the album's meaning in interviews.
The end result was R.E.M.'s biggest commercial success, topping the charts in the UK and New Zealand, and peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. It would end up being the second-best-selling album of 1993 in the UK, and would go on to be certified septuple-platinum in the UK and Canada, quadruple-platinum in the US and Australia, triple-platinum in the Netherlands, double-platinum in Austria, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, platinum in France and New Zealand, quintuple-gold in Germany, and gold in Argentina. Since its release, it has sold over 18 million copies worldwide, and currently holds the position of being the 60th best-selling album in the United Kingdom (just barely high enough to make it onto Wikipedia's list on the category).
Although the album is seen as polarizing to some fans, in part because of its immense success, critics have been more favorable, regarding Automatic for the People as R.E.M.'s greatest album: it was ranked at No. 249 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list (later being bumped up to No. 96 on the 2020 revision) and No. 65 on NME's similar list, and is currently at No. 46 on Acclaimed Music's compilation of critics' lists. Among the fans who do like it, it's also frequently regarded as a major high point for the band, being ranked as one of their finest works alongside Murmur, Document, Green, Out of Time, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi; it's also a personal favorite of bandmates Peter Buck and Mike Mills, for what it's worth. The album was nominated for Album of the Year at the 1994 Grammy Awards, but lost to Whitney Houston's soundtrack for The Bodyguard. It was also nominated for Best Alternative Music Album at the same ceremony, but lost that award to Zooropa by U2.
On a somewhat darker note, this album is known for the fact that Kurt Cobain of Nirvana listened to it shortly before committing suicide in 1994, similarly to what Iggy Pop's The Idiot was to Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis back in 1980. Michael Stipe would later write "Let Me In" (off of the band's next album, Monster) in Cobain's memory.
Automatic for the People was backed by six singles: "Drive", "Man on the Moon", "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite", "Everybody Hurts", "Nightswimming", and "Find the River".
- "Drive" (4:31)
- "Try Not to Breathe" (3:50)
- "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" (4:06)
- "Everybody Hurts" (5:17)
- "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" (2:13)
- "Sweetness Follows" (4:19)
- "Monty Got a Raw Deal" (3:17)
- "Ignoreland" (4:24)
- "Star Me Kitten" (3:15)
- "Man on the Moon" (5:13)
- "Nightswimming" (4:16)
- "Find the River" (3:50)
Every streetlight reveals the trope in reverse:
- An Aesop: The message of "Everybody Hurts" is "Don't kill yourself."
- Beige Prose: Done intentionally on "Everybody Hurts", a sharp contrast from Michael Stipe's typically abstract and metaphor-laden lyrical style, in order to more effectively reach the band's teenage audience with its anti-suicide message.
- Bittersweet Ending: The album closes out with "Find the River", a song narrated by a dying old man Passing the Torch to the new generation. As such, the sense of finality throughout the song is as hopeful as it is tragic.
- Bookends: "Monty Got a Raw Deal" begins and ends with the line "Monty, this seems strange to me".
- Breather Episode: Word of God states that "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" is an invoked case of this, being an upbeat-sounding song in an album that's otherwise pretty bleak, both musically and lyrically, for the most part.Peter Buck: "We included this song on Automatic in order to break the prevailing mood of the album. Given that lyrically the record dealt with mortality, the passage of time, suicide and family, we felt that a light spot was needed. In retrospect, the consensus among the band is that this might be a little too lightweight."
- Buffy Speak: "Monty Got a Raw Deal":The movies had that movie thing
- Call-Back: The opening line of "Drive" ("smack, crack, bushwhacked") nods back to a newspaper advertisement Michael Stipe put out in 1988 condemning the George H. W. Bush campaign ("Don't Get Bushwhacked. Get out and vote"). The allusion to the ad here ties into the album's release during Bush's reelection bid, noting the administration's perceived failures both in the rest of the line and in the next one ("smack, crack" referring to the War on Drugs, and "tie another one to your rack" referring to lax gun control).
- Censored Title: "Star Me Kitten". The song actually says "Fuck Me Kitten", which was in fact its second titlenote , before Meg Ryan (who was filming Sleepless in Seattle in... well, Seattle, where the band recorded part of Automatic for the People) convinced Stipe to change it, saying that where she'd grown up, if such a Precision F-Strike appeared on any album, it wouldn't have been put on shelves (or at least would've gotten a "Parental Advisory" label).
- Color Motif: Continuing R.E.M.'s longstanding association with the color yellow, the back cover prominently uses yellow tones, the CD label is bright translucent yellow, and early CD copies feature a translucent yellow media tray, similar to the translucent red tray on David Byrne's Uh-Oh from earlier that year. The 25th anniversary deluxe edition release of the album also features a yellow banner on the top of the front cover and prominently features yellow throughout the rest of its packaging too.
- Concept Album: Loosely; several of the songs are about death in some way or another, and the album as a whole covers themes of loss and longing, acting as a musing on the band entering their thirties.
- Continuity Nod: 1999's "The Great Beyond" features the lines "Here's a little agit for the never-believer/Here's a little ghost for the offering" as a Call-Back to "Man on the Moon", where those lines are originally from.
- Corpsing: In "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" after the line "...and a reading from Dr. Seuss", as he apparently couldn't pronounce the name right, saying "Zeus" instead of "Seuss." Ironically, the true correct pronunciation (which nobody ever uses) was "Dr. Soyce" (rhymes with "voice"), which would've more readily rhymed with the line "a can of beans or black-eyed peas, some Nescafé and ice."
- Darker and Edgier: Compared to Out of Time and even all of their prior work, the songs on Automatic for the People are decidedly more dour and introspective. The album's dark tone was so prominent and unusual by the band's standards, in fact, that it led to widespread media speculation that Stipe was seriously ill, fueled by Freddie Mercury's death from AIDS the previous year and the disease's informing of the similarly dark and introspective Queen album Innuendo.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The album cover, a given considering it was designed by photographer, director, and monochrome aficionado Anton Corbijn.
- Driven to Suicide: "Try Not to Breathe" may or may not be about this. "Everybody Hurts", meanwhile, is an up-front plea not to kill oneself.
- Echoing Acoustics: Done frequently throughout the album to add on to the chamber-like feeling of its mix of acoustic guitar and strings.
- Gratuitous Panning: The main guitar line of "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" is panned entirely to one side. There's also a weird, mechanical, tribal percussion part in "Monty Got a Raw Deal" panned entirely to one side. It's only really audible if you're listening carefully, though.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Yep, they did it again on the vinyl version, despite the format having rapidly fallen from mass popularity at this point. This time around, the sides are labeled "Drive Side" and "Ride Side". The labeling also extends to cassette releases of the album, so technically speaking the band managed to break the practice out from being associated with a dormant format.
- Indecipherable Lyrics: Good luck understanding the chorus to "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite", since Stipe manages to compress the entire sentence into one second.Callmewhenytrytawake her up!
- Intercourse with You: "Star Me Kitten", the censored title of which occludes the fact that Stipe actually sings "fuck me, Kitten."
- Instrumentals: "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1".
- Ironic Nursery Tune: "Drive"
- "Just Joking" Justification: From "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite":Tell her she can kiss my ass
Then laugh and say that you were only kidding
That way she'll know that it's really really really really me, me
- Lampshade Hanging: The final verse of the anti-Reagan Protest Song "Ignoreland" includes the lines "I know that this is vitriol, no solution, spleen-venting/But I feel better having screamed, don't you?"
- Lonely Piano Piece: "Nightswimming".
- Lyrical Dissonance: "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite." It seems like a fun song, but it's actually about a breakdown in communication with a loved one. Others interpret it as being about suicide or dying in your sleep, which would make the lyrics even more jarring against the upbeat melody.
- Minimalistic Cover Art: Simply the band name and album title against a black-and-white photograph of a metal star sculpture.
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: Mostly ranges from a 1 (i.e. "Nightswimming") to a 3 (i.e. "Man On the Moon", "Monty Got a Raw Deal"), but briefly jumps up to a hard 5 on "Ignoreland", the sole remnant of the original plan for a Hard Rock-style album.
- Mythology Gag:
- Mike Mills and Bill Berry's backing vocals on "Find the River" hark back to a similar technique on "Harborcoat" nearly a decade prior, a similarity that Mills confirmed to be an intentional creative decision in an interview with Melody Maker.
- The verses of "Try Not to Breathe" reprise the melody and rhythm of "Swan Swan H".
- New Sound Album: Acoustic rock with string backings and an overall dour tone. Incidentally, the shift in sound parallels that of 10,000 Maniacs' similarly soft and sour sound on Our Time in Eden, released just six days before this album; given that R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs were closely affiliated, the parallels seem to be the result of the two bands once again influencing each another.
- Non-Appearing Title: "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite", though it comes close twice. "Star Me Kitten" also technically counts, if only because Michael Stipe actually sings "fuck me, Kitten" in the song; the title is a censored one. The band themselves changed the title after their friend Meg Ryan noted that no record stores in her hometown would've sold an album with the F-bomb on the album sleeve.
- Nothing Left to Do but Die: "Try Not to Breathe" appears to be written from the perspective of someone in this frame of mind.
- Passing the Torch: "Find the River" is sung from the perspective of an old man doing this in his dying moments.
- Pep-Talk Song: Mike Mills said that the message of "Drive" was for kids to take charge of their own lives.
- Precision F-Strike: "Star Me Kitten" and "Ignoreland" both drop the F-bomb, which isn't heard anywhere else on the album. It actually comes pretty close to a Cluster F-Bomb in both songs ("Star Me Kitten" drops it three times, "Ignoreland" four), but the distortion on the latter and Stipe's quiet delivery on the former may have resulted in the album managing to slip by without an "Explicit Lyrics" sticker.
- Product Placement: "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" namedrops the Nescafé brand of coffee.
- Protest Song: "Ignoreland", a humongous Take That! at the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations (the latter of which was seeking reelection when the song came out).
- Rearrange the Song: The live version of "Try Not to Breathe" is somewhat faster and heavier, sounding more desperate and pained than the already-haunting studio version.
- "Drive" also sounded notably different live— the studio version is again haunting and acoustic-based, whereas the live version they played at the time was faster, set to a funk rhythm, and featured distorted guitar. In later performances, they went back to approximating the studio arrangement though.
- Retraux: The album seems to be designed as if it was released ten years before it actually was.
- The Deliberately Monochrome cover, consisting of a gritty, stylized photograph and stark white text, seems evocative of the style of album art that was popular for Alternative Rock artists in the 1980's (particularly acts like The Smiths, 10,000 Maniacs, and R.E.M. themselves).
- The spines on the album packaging mimic the style of CD releases from Warner Music Group-affiliated labels in the 1980's, with centered, taller-than-wide, plain white text on a black background.
- The more subdued, acoustic sound mixed with string arrangements evokes the roots rock style of groups like Dire Straits that was still popular in the early 80's, as evidenced by the success of albums like Making Movies (1980) and Love Over Gold (1982) during that time.
- Sand Necktie: Implied with the lines "I saw the ocean meet the man/I saw you buried in the sand" in "Monty Got a Raw Deal".
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: How the video for "Everybody Hurts" ends. Everyone in the traffic jam just gets out of their cars and leaves. A stinger shows TV footage from above the abandoned cars, and we hear a traffic reporter lamenting the scene.
- Sequel Song:
- "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" is named after and interpolates the opening of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by the Tokens. R.E.M. actually licensed out the latter song in order to clear the interpolation, and in exchange a Cover Version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is included as a B-Side to the single release. The same song also namedrops Dr. Seuss (leading Michael Stipe to corpse over his difficulty with pronouncing the name— he always kept saying "Dr. Zeus") and recounts the plot of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.
- "Man on the Moon" was written in memory of Andy Kaufman (and became so associated with him that... well, see Titled After the Song below). The phrase "yeah yeah yeah yeah" at the end of each line is also a homage to Nirvana, whose frontman Kurt Cobain was friends with Michael Stipe; Stipe noted that Cobain had a tendency to interject "yeah" in his songs, and decided to try and outdo him as an inside joke, to the extent of counting the number of yeah's in "Man on the Moon".
- "Automatic for the people" is the slogan of Athens, GA eatery Weaver D's Delicious Fine Foods, which the band are fans of.
- David Essex's "Rock On" and Bill Haley & His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" are quoted in "Drive".
- "Everybody Hurts" is an audible homage to "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" by David Bowie, and features a similar underlying theme of You Are Not Alone.
- "Monty Got a Raw Deal" is a dual nod to actor Montgomery Clift and talk show host Monty Hall, famous as the host of Let's Make a Deal. Clift suffered a car accident in The '50s that led to a rapid decline in his health and career; director Robert Lewis referred to his post-accident career as "the longest suicide in Hollywood history", and he spent his last days addicted to painkillers and alcohol. According to his brother, Clift was also likely either bisexual or gay, which he was forced to conceal from the public. Elizabeth Taylor, who called him her closest friend and confidant, later stated that he was gay. The song is saying, in a parallel to the game show, that Clift got a raw deal with how his life turned out.
- Skinny Dipping: The subject of "Nightswimming".
- Studio Chatter: A nonverbal instance occurs with "Nightswimming", which opens with the string section warming up and John Paul Jones tapping the conductor's podium to signify the start of the performance, right before the actual song kicks in.
- Talk About the Weather: "Find the River" is most hardcore fans' favorite R.E.M. song for this reason. The song seems to be the last words of a dying person who is at peace with their life and is telling their relatives not to worry, Passing the Torch to the new generation. The music fits this, not being sad but being wistful and bittersweet. Essentially then the song is relaxing with a hint of melancholy, but is a tearjerker because it's so beautiful.
- Titled After the Song: "Man on the Moon" not only became the title of, and was used in, an Andy Kaufman biopic, but R.E.M. provided the movie's instrumental underscore and a new song, "The Great Beyond".
- Title-Only Chorus: "Ignoreland"
- Unusual Euphemism: "Star Me Kitten".
- You Are Not Alone: "Everybody Hurts."So if you feel like you're alone... No. No. No. You are not alone.
- You Make Me Sic: "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite".