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

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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.