Host Darly Easlea opens with a bit of background, saying, “It is rare for a group to achieve all of the big three Cs with an album, but Automatic For The People marked a critical, commercial, and creative summit for R.E.M. Preceded by the single ‘Drive,’ the album was released in October 1992, and was mainly recorded in two of the most iconic studios in North America, Bearsville in upstate New York, and Criteria in Miami.
Completed in late summer 1992, Automatic For The People was issued on October 5, and its opening track, “Drive,” also provided the record’s lead single. A sparse, semi-acoustic almost-ballad in a minor key, enriched by the swirling arabesques of Jones’ string arrangement, it found Michael Stipe intoning, “Hey kids, where are you? Nobody tells you what to do,” in an apparent homage to David Essex’s glam rock hit “Rock On.”
Akin to Out Of Time’s “Losing My Religion,” the chorus-free “Drive” was a bold, if slightly eccentric statement of intent, and much of what followed demonstrated that R.E.M. had ditched the mooted return to rock’n’roll, instead delivering a dark and contemplative record which quickly drew comparisons with some of rock’s bleaker masterpieces, including Big Star’s Third and Lou Reed’s Magic And Loss.
Explaining the record’s somber tone, Peter Buck told R.E.M. biographer David Buckley that it was inspired by “that sense of… turning 30… we were just in a different place and that worked its way out musically and lyrically.” Undeniably, several of Automatic…’s songs dwelt upon themes of loss and mourning: the ruminative “Sweetness Follows,” for instance, openly spoke of bereavement (“readying to bury your mother and your father”), while the gripping “Try Not To Breathe” (“I will hold my breath until all these shivers subside”) reputedly referred to the controversial physician Jack Kevorkian (aka “Dr. Death”), who was later arrested and tried for his role in a case of voluntary euthanasia.
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