R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People”

Album cover for "Automatic for the People"

This week, I’ve been listening to R.E.M.’s 1992 album “Automatic for the People.” This album came out when I was a sophomore in High School; About three years later I often listened to the album in my little VW Golf. I really enjoyed this album, though “Monster” was more to my tastes. I’ll get this out of the way; I don’t care much for the overplayed hit “Everybody Hurts“. So, let’s move on to some of the songs I do like, of which on this album there are plenty. These songs present a variety of country-rock, alt-folk and alt-rock blends. The lyrics give us stories, vignettes, and vitriol combining common language with big words. It’s rock n roll poetry by the smart kids.

Man on the Moon

The song “Man on the Moon” introduced a lot of my generation to Andy Kaufman. We’d seen him in reruns of Taxi, but, at least for me, I didn’t really know anything about him otherwise. The song title, paralleling moon-landing conspiracies with Kaufman faking his death, gave the title to a film about Kaufman starring Jim Carrey. All that aside, it’s a fantastic tune with great lyrics. Originally, I was going to write about “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” but the guitar solo in “Man on the Moon” changed my mind.

I jump straight to the solo now and do this things backwards. Two electric guitars playing simultaneously creating a uniquely engaging sound. One, panned a little to the right, plays the tonic note of the chord repeatedly. This adds a sort of drone to the melodic lead played by another guitar panned to the left. The actual solo flows from a slide guitar driven just below the breaking point of the amp, so there’s just a smooth bit of gritty distortion.

The part is not particularly complicated. The chords progression is a repeated vi-V, having an elevated above the rest of the song feeling. The slide runs up to the 12th fret during the vi chord, and drops down to the 7th fret during the V. There’s a bit of wiggling during the V up to the 8th fret, and let off at the end of the bar to play the open B string. It’s a very rugged American guitar solo and I think it sounds fantastic.

The fairly languid alt-folk song opens with clean electric bass and acoustic guitar. These are joined by a clean slide electric, and then drums and vocals. The drums bounce across the stereo field, playing open simple patterns primarily on the toms. The accompaniment of the song is beautiful, gently and simple. The song is easy to like without feeling overly pleasant.

Each line of the verses follow a IV-V-IV chord progression. The lack of a tonic chord in the verses gives them a drifting unresolved feeling. This helps the chorus to stand out as being strong. The chorus follows a ii-I repeated three times, followed by a IV-V that pulls the listener towards to following tonic. The second and main part of the chorus has a I-ii-IV-V-I-ii-V-I-ii-IV-iii-ii. That hanging ii chord ends the chorus unresolved, where it pulls back around to the IV-V-IV verse progression.

Apparently, Michael Stipe included all of the yeahs in the song as a mocking tribute to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Kurt tended to use a lot of “yeahs” in his lyrics; a great example is Nirvana’s “Lithium” from 1991 with a chorus of “yeah yeah yeah”. So, here’s a bit of the seemingly random bits of Kaufman-referencing lyrics to “Man on the Moon”

Here’s a little agit for the never-believer, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Here’s a little ghost for the offering, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Mister Andy Kaufman’s gone wrestling, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Ignoreland

“Ignoreland” reminds me of a handful of songs from the late 80s that, as kids, we considered it a skill to be able to recite. I immediately think of R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World,” Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and Madonna’s “Vogue.” Oh, and of course, the McDonald’s Menu song, which was a brilliant idea considering how many of us in middle school memorized and repeated it.

Though the vocals maintain focus throughout, there’s a lot happening in the background. Layers of guitars weave lines back and forth creating a swirling texture. The poppy clean bass subtly provides the bottom through the verses, then thrums a constant tonic note through the pre-chorus section of the verses. During the post-chorus, the bass draws attention to itself through a poppy bouncing riff, then withdraws to the back again. The drums are modest, with basic fills at the end of each section; a cowbell pops through the choruses. Overdrives emphasize the choruses, with fuzz drifting giving a rocking angry feel.

The verses have three distinct sections, the last of which is arguably a pre-chorus even though each has somewhat lyrics. The first section has a minimal melody with rhythmic statements and unusual pauses. The delivery and filtering make the vocals sound like a radio broadcast. This last for eight lines. The second section bring in a distinctly different melody which lasts for three lines. Stipe sings these in more traditional way.

Then Stipe launches into a rapid rhythmic monotone series of lines flying like ticker-tape. The song is decidedly political taking aim at former president Reagan and then president Bush, as well as media coverage at the time.Brooding duplicitous, wicked and able, media-ready
Heartless and labeled, super U.S. citizen, super achiever
Mega ultra power dosing, relax, defense, defense, defense, defense
Yeah, yeah, yeah

Up the republic my skinny ass
TV tells a million lies
The paper’s terrified to report
Anything that isn’t handed
On a presidential spoon
I’m just profoundly frustrated
By all this, so fuck you, man

Nightswimming

Another great song “Nightswimming” closes the album. OK, not really. There’s another good song, “Find the River,” actually ends the album, but I think that would’ve sat better in the middle. Nightswimming casts a nostalgic spell recalling more carefree younger days. The perspective is from years later.

Some ambiguity runs through the lyrics. It’s unclear if the speaker just went swimming at night and is now driving home realizing how nightswimming today is not like it was years ago. Or, perhaps, all of the swimming was years ago and it’s merely the photograph on the dashboard that reminds him.

Sparse instrumentation accompany the poignant feeling of nostalgia in the lyrics. A piano plays a repeating melodic arpeggio, reminding me a bit of Mozart’s childhood pieces, though without the showing-off. The song mostly repeats a I-IV-V progression throughout. A bass supports the piano; and in a subtle use of strings and oboe provide some color the the background. I love a bit of oboe, so it’s a welcome addition for my ear.

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
The photograph on the dashboard taken years ago
Turned around backwards so the windshield shows
Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse
Still, it’s so much clearer
I forgot my shirt at the water’s edge
The moon is low tonight

Radiohead’s “The Bends”

Album cover for Radiohead's "The Bends"

I spent this week with Radiohead’s second album “The Bends” from 1995. This album came out when my senior year of high school was coming to a close. It seems like I heard the song “High and Dry” a bit, but I don’t recall being too aware of this album until the following year. Several of the songs, especially “Just” and “Fake Plastic Trees” became part of the regular soundtrack of my life. It wasn’t so much my choice, though I did love the song. Both Mtv and my friends played “Fake Plastic Trees” with some frequency. Somehow, I managed to not get to know much of this album until this week.

It’s funny how you don’t realize how “of its time” some recordings can be until you listen to them a couple decades later. This album is definitely within the 90s guitar alt-rock genre. Listening to this album made me really realize how influential the Pixies had been on the sound of 90s alternative. I found this especially noticeable in the way the bass is used in these songs. There will be louder sections with drums, guitars, bass, vocals, etc.. and then these will pull back for quieter sections with crispy bass guitar grooves. Anyway…

The song I most know from this album is undoubtedly “Fake Plastic Trees”. In the video, you’ll see singer Thom Yorke riding around the grocery store in the shopping cart. I guess this was just a thing in the 90s, as Jarvis Cocker did it the year before in Pulp’s video for “Common People.” I know there were others, but all I can remember now is an early publicity shot of Marilyn Manson.

Thom Yorke’s quietly strummed acoustic guitar opens the song. Yorke sings sonorously, wet with deep reverb. The lyrics deal with capitalism and artificiality in contemporary society and culture. A sense of humor runs through the lyrics, while they express an emotional mix of disillusionment, emptiness and longing.

A green plastic watering can
For a fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

The first chorus repeats the line “It wears her out.” This gets modified to “It wears him out.” in the second chorus and finally “It wears me out” for the third and final verse. I like this use of the chorus as a refrain for verses, altered slightly to match the subject of the verse.

The personal turn the songs takes for the final verse, comes even more raw at the end. Yorke closes “Fake Plastic Trees” wistfully singing “If I could be who you wanted all the time.” This reminds me of the chorus “You’re so fuckin’ special; I wish I was special” in their song “Creep.” He gritted his teeth to sardonically deliver that line in the earlier song, spitting it out more as an insult. But in “Fake Plastic Trees” the line comes out as a painful apology for not being enough.

I came to really enjoy the song “Bones,” which follows “Fake Plastic Trees” on the album. It’s probably the most rock n’ roll track. I really like the use of deep tremolo on the overdriven guitar. With each strum in each verse, they drop the speed of the effect as the chord naturally fades out. They disable the effect for chorus. Still, I’ve found with the Rolling Stones and now Radiohead that I really enjoy guitars through tremolo and rotating speaker. It’s particularly exciting when the rhythm of the strumming is in a fight against the tremolo. This can be heard in “Bones” just before each chorus when they they have the speed up.

My favorite track on the album remains “Just.” The song opens with a particularly 90s acoustic guitar riff, much like we would hear later the same year from Oasis. This style of rhythmic strumming was heard a lot during the decade, probably coming from the Pixies and Boston by way of Nirvana.  Radiohead crafted an excellent song here, but what really gets me is the bridge starting halfway into the song. At about 2:28, we hear electric guitar draw the song back in with string noise through tremolo! I would argue that the bridge of “Just” unusually includes another chorus. This comes to a tense climax when Greenwood’s frantically picked ascending lead guitar peaks.. holding a distorted note threatened by impending feedback. The other instruments pull back giving a floating weightless feeling to the moment. Just before feedback overrides the note, Greenwood slides it back and mutes the guitar. A clean guitar brings back the beat of the song with staccato pronunciations. The the band slams us with one last chorus before closing the song by sudden cutting out.