This year marks the 25th anniversary of R.E.M.’s seminal, “Automatic for the People” album. Not only marking a turning point in the development of the band, it proved to be one of the most acclaimed albums of the entire 1990’s.
Meanwhile, another band that was becoming the decade’s standard bearers, were becoming disenchanted with their newfound success. Nirvana’s “Nevermind” (1991) album betrayed frontman Kurt Cobain’s melodic sensibilities by changing them from underground heroes to MTV hit superstars.
R.E.M’s Michael Stipe had became a star in his own right several years prior. Then, thanks to the unexpected hit of 1991’s “Losing My Religion” and the video’s regular rotation on MTV, Stipe and R.E.M’s fame grew. A mutual admiration emerged between Stipe and Cobain and both bands reacted to their success differently.
R.E.M. would follow up their upbeat hit single with the melancholy and autumnal “Automatic for the People,” a stylistic about-face that influenced Cobain greatly.
The album dealt with lyrical themes of aging, death and mourning, in some of the most emotionally direct songwriting of the band’s career up to that point. Musically it was assisted by string arrangements overseen by ex-Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Dark, moody tracks like “Sweetness Follows” and “Star Me Kitten” are side by side with genuine hits from the album– “Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon.”
Nirvana themselves had reacted strongly against “Nevermind” by releasing the decidedly alienating “In Utero” (1993). In between the harsh pockets of noise were beautiful string and cello embellishments on songs like “Dumb” and “All Apologies,” songs that would become fan-favorites.
Later that year, Nirvana would have their now famous performance on the set of “MTV Unplugged,” performing many songs from that same album. A live album would be cut and be the first release following Cobain’s death in April 1994. Though before it was recorded, Cobain himself foresaw where his band’s musical direction would be headed. Their next album after “In Utero” would be “pretty ethereal, acoustic, like R.E.M.’s last album.”
Many critics indeed saw the live album as similar in tone to ‘Automatic,’ complete with acoustic numbers that highlighted the nihilism inherent in their lyrics. Nirvana’s album saw only hopelessness, whereas R.E.M. could still see hope; it was a warning sign of what was to come.
It emerged later that Michael Stipe had reached out to Cobain before his death in hopes of a collaboration, with the intent of pulling him away from personal destruction. R.E.M.’s “Let Me In” off their “Monster” (1994) album was a direct plea to his friend to let him help.
And so another “What if?” chapter in rock music was completed upon Cobain’s death. The sad circle is completed when it was found Cobain had “Automatic” in his stereo at the time of his suicide. Yet despite the album bearing this dark context, some solace can still be found in the warmth of ‘Automatic,’ and in a strange sense it can remain all these years later a quieting reminder of comfort in the face of loss.