In spite of its minor-key melancholy, R.E.M.'s 'Automatic' album feels right

SOUNDS ADVICE

October 04, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

"Hey, kid, rock and roll!"

Coming from any other band, a line like that would be easy enough to decode. Sung enthusiastically, it's a pledge of allegiance to the cause of roaring guitars and amplified abandon; sung with a bit of an edge, it becomes a sarcastic sendup of that rah-rah party aesthetic.

But sung mournfully over minor-chord guitar arpeggios -- the way singer Michael Stipe does on "Drive" -- the phrase moves to a different level entirely. Heard this way, the words seem to teeter between hope and regret, unable to give up the former and unwilling to succumb to the latter. Yet there's also a note of defiance there, as if neither the singer nor his audience is willing to admit to the tenuousness of that balance.

It's not the cheeriest note on which to introduce a new album, but then again, R.E.M.'s "Automatic for the People" (Warner Bros. 45055) isn't an especially lighthearted effort. Indeed, just as last year's "Out of Time" was a step away from the big-rock joviality of "Green," so "Automatic" finds the band pushing further into the realm of gloomy introspection.

Battered by suffering and haunted by death, most of the songs here are painted in minor-key melancholy and fleshed out with plaintive keyboards or somber string arrangements. Even the usually elliptical song titles seem consumed by heartache: "Everybody Hurts." "Monty Got a Raw Deal." "Try Not to Breathe." "Ignoreland."

Don't get me wrong -- this isn't "Music To Slit Your Wrists By" or some such. But even the album's upbeat moments, like "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" or the whimsical "Man on the Moon," are imbued with a certain darkness, as if there were something unthinkable about unmitigated cheer.

Despite its downbeat nature, though, there's a lot to like about "Automatic for the People." Its sound, for starters, is luscious and inviting, from the luxuriant intermingling of strings and electric guitar in "Everybody Hurts" to the whispering organ and dark, sawing cello of "Sweetness Follows." It isn't just a matter of atmosphere, either; the rich specificity of these sounds plays a large part in defining the mood of these songs.

And that's important, because what the music has to say is as important as anything in the lyrics -- and is often far easier to understand. Even though Stipe's elocution has improved since the band's earliest efforts (where his blurred delivery earned R.E.M. the jocular sobriquet "The only band that mutters"), making sense of what he says is still no easy task.

Some songs, like "Nightswimming" or "Everybody Hurts," are fairly straightforward, while others -- "Monty Got a Raw Deal," for instance, or the oddly jubilant "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" -- come across as total solipsism. Even when Stipe's references are relatively obvious, as with "Man on the Moon," in which he imagines Andy Kaufman in heaven "goofing on Elvis," it's still hard to grasp what he's getting at.

But as little as I can glean from the lyrics to "Star Me Kitten" -- which is to say almost nothing -- there's something about its ethereal vocals and dreamy guitar that never fails to move me. Because what matters most as the song unfolds is its musical logic, the way its colors and chords speak to specific emotions.

It may not make sense, in other words, but it feels right -- and the same goes for most of "Automatic for the People." And while that may not make the album an automatic success, any listener who takes the time to get acquainted will almost certainly be the better for it.

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