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

Led Zeppelin’s IV

Led Zepplin 4 album coverI’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album from 1971. Each week I devote to an acclaimed album to learn as a songwriting musician. As with “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd, I grew up hearing this Led Zeppelin album often. I imagine many of us born in the 70s did. Even with all of that exposure, it’s still a great album with surprises.

The fourth track “Stairway to Heaven” pulls together the greatest qualities of the album into one song. As an unfortunate side effect of being one of the greatest songs ever, it has become amazingly overplayed. I sigh with lack of interest when the song starts. My favorite portion of the song starts at after five and a half minutes. First, the guitars signal a transition through a dramatic series of chords sounding like horns. Jimmy Page then provides a fantastic soulful guitar solo. I like that the they did not distort the rhythm guitar to get a rocking sound. They gave it a sense of being big by double-tracking with some strong spring reverb. There, I talked about “Stairway to Heaven” mostly because I’d feel foolish not mentioning it. Seriously, I skipped it many times this week.

Four Sticks” got my attention this time around. I hadn’t given it much attention in the past, so it still had a little sense of novelty. Also, the unusual rhythm of the song intrigued me. Some research revealed that most of the song is in a very unusual 5/8 time, withe some parts in a more common 6/8. I read that the rhythm of the song was so difficult that they almost gave up on recording the song. I hear a few times on the recording that they do slip up as a result. There’s a vaguely middle-eastern feel to the music. This comes from the combination of odd time signature, droning ascending scales, driving percussion, and energetically strummed acoustics. I sometimes find that songs in odd signatures will feel like they drift or ramble, but the 6/8 sections of this song give a sense of journey.

The seventh track “Going to California” is comparable to “Stairway to Heaven” while being much better. I like the collection of acoustic guitars and mandolin creating musical textures through arpeggios. They are panned mostly hard left and right, leaving space in the middle for the bass and vocals. The lyrics are more relatable than the Tolkeinesque-Rumi vagueness that happens on some of the other tracks like “Stairway.” The first verse is a pair of beautifully written narrative couplets. They get the listeners attention immediately through emotional story-telling:

Spent my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine.
Made up my mind to make a new start
Going To California with an aching in my heart.

Speaking of Tolkein, my other favorite track is “Misty Mountain Hop.” There’s also something unique about the rhythm of this song. The main riff of the song, which is played on both guitar and electric piano, actually starts an 8th note before the first beat of each measure and least for a full quarter. This song provides an a great example of what I first think of as the Led Zeppelin sound. There’s big loud drums, a heavy bass bottom, a blues-inspired hard grooving guitar riff, and Plant’s high-pitched vocals. The narrative lyrics describe a situation, a certain place and time, written with an ear to both blues and high fantasy balladry.

So I’ve learned a bit about the possibilities of mixing time signatures in a song. Their use of mysticism and fantasy elements is most enjoyable for me for telling real-world narrative. In addition, the way that they double-up on instruments to strengthen a riff is very effective. And you can’t deny the power of big drums.