The Little Things That Pull You Under: R.E.M.’s ‘Automatic For The People’ At 25

Cultural Critic
11.09.17

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In the spring of 1991, R.E.M. had reached the mountaintop.

Released on March 12, 1991 — just four months shy of the 10th anniversary of the band’s debut single, “Radio Free Europe” — Out Of Time capped a decade-long ascent from indie-rock obscurity in a once-unfashionable corner of the south to the highest echelons of the music industry. On the strength of the smash hit “Losing My Religion,” which peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100 and stayed on the charts well into summertime, Out Of Time would go on to sell 18 million copies worldwide, including more than four million units in the US alone.

R.E.M. also duked it out with some of the era’s biggest pop stars at the top of the album charts — Out Of Time displaced Mariah Carey’s blockbuster self-titled debut from the No. 1 spot in May, then was briefly ejected by Michael Bolton’s Time, Love, & Tenderness, and then returned to the pole position until Paul Abdul’s Spellbound took it over.

After years of enduring indifferent audiences in pizza parlors and bowling alleys; and mounting countless tours in which the band members had to crash on floors and travel hundreds of miles between gigs inside of tiny vans; and releasing a series of critically acclaimed albums that sold slightly better than the previous one, but never quite took over the zeitgeist; R.E.M had done it. Factoring in record sales, pop success, critical reputation, and artistic quality, they were unquestionably America’s best and most important band in the early ’90s.

The natural order of things is that a band capitalizes on this level of status by launching a lengthy, worldwide concert tour and raking in tens of millions of dollars. At the very least, you splurge on mansions and sports cars, and develop a debilitating drug habit along the way.

But R.E.M. didn’t do any of that. Instead, they acted as if nothing had changed.

After the band completed promotional duties for Out Of Time in May, right when the album was peaking in popularity, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry began meeting regularly for few hours each day, five days a week, at a local recording studio in their long-time home of Athens, Georgia. The purpose was to jam, write songs, and record demos for a new R.E.M. album. Over time, dozens of fragments emerged, some of which would later be developed into some of the band’s most beloved songs, while others wouldn’t be heard outside of bootlegs for another 26 years.

“It was no problem for us just to wander down to the studio and hang out for a few hours. It was probably air-conditioned, which was better than half the other places in Athens in the summer,” Mills tells me about the beginning of what became R.E.M.’s greatest album, Automatic For The People.

The last time I interviewed Mike Mills, it was six years ago and R.E.M. had just announced that they were breaking up after 31 years and more than 85 million records sold. Over the course of two phoners, I’ve now spoken to him for a grand total of 40 minutes, so I can’t claim to have deep knowledge of the man. But my impression is that Mills, and R.E.M. generally, is not interested in self-mythology.

When asked about Automatic, Mills dutifully repeats well-trod anecdotes about “Nightswimming,” perhaps the most beautiful rock song ever written about pining for the lost innocence of childhood, for which Mills composed a stirring piano melody set to a preexisting poem written by Michael Stipe. Except Mills can’t remember when he wrote “Nightswimming” — Buck has said in various interviews that it originated from the tail-end of the Out Of Time sessions, which also spawned two other crucial cornerstones of Automatic For The People: The stark, spaghetti-western-style opener “Drive,” and the stunning deathbed lament “Try Not To Breathe.” But Mills can’t confirm the veracity of that story, though he does remember recording the majestic instrumental track at Miami’s Criteria Studios, on the same piano that Jim Gordon used to play the iconic coda to “Layla” 20 years prior. “I just don’t expect anyone else to really care except maybe some muso gearheads that read a lot of liner notes,” Mills says dismissively.

“As far as we were concerned, it was the next record, and really nothing more. That’s really all we were thinking about,” insists Mills, who turns 59 next month. “Part of it was, sitting and writing songs is fun. Whatever you’re doing as a songwriter, you’re hoping a song will pop out of it, even if you’re not directly sitting and saying, ‘Okay, today we’re gonna write a song.’ But if you’re sitting around with a couple of guitars, especially if it’s me and Peter, then the odds are something good’s gonna come out of it.”

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