When R.E.M. were gearing up to release 1992's Automatic For the People, their eighth album, they were near the top of their powers. The previous LP from the Athens, Georgia alternative rockers, Out of Time, was their first chart-topping album, was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy, and featured singles that are still ubiquitous like "Losing My Religion" and "Shiny Happy People." Even though they accomplished this with major label backing in Warner Bros, they still delicately balanced the line between their college indie rock radio roots and bonafide stardom.
But even at their peak in popularity, Automatic for the People proved that R.E.M. would still take risks take their craft to darker and more interesting territory. The result shows members Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry making some of the band's best songs, like the nostalgic "Nightswimming," the earnestly straightforward "Everybody Hurts," and breezy "Man on the Moon." On top of it selling well over 18 million copies, it's consistently one of the band's most critically-lauded efforts, with Rolling Stone rating it in the top half of its 500 Best Albums of All-Time list.
Because it’s such a career-defining album for the band and sold so many copies, it’s somewhat surprising that many people haven’t heard it. One of those people is Lindsey Jordan, the Maryland-raised frontwoman of the indie rock trio Snail Mail. While her acclaimed debut EP Habit operates in separate indie rock territory than R.E.M.’s music, her Matador label-mates like Pavement are huge fans.
“I haven’t even heard “Losing My Religion,” which I know is the big one. I think I’ve heard maybe three R.E.M. songs but I just remember one was like about a body of water and it sounded really dramatic. Our drummer Ray [Brown] is a huge fan and has played it in the van a lot,” says Jordan. “Recently a song came on while we were driving and the band was like, 'Lindsey, cover your ears. You’ve got this thing to do!’” Check out her full reaction below.
Lindsey Jordan: It’s up my alley so far. It’s crazy that this is their eighth album. Is this their breadwinner?
Noisey: One of them! It’s their top-seller and it’s sold well over 18 million copies, which is crazy. Their songs are still pretty ubiquitous. Like if you’re on rock radio or in a CVS you’ll hear something off this record or like “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”
Wait, that’s an R.E.M. song? Holy shit. But yeah, there are definitely songs you only hear in CVS like it's CVS-core.
2. "Try Not to Breathe"
This is really tight so far.
Michael Stipe is one of those frontman where his lyrics are pretty hard to decipher and sometimes he pronounces things in really interesting ways that can sometimes cloud what he’s saying.
Like Dave Matthews! You can’t tell what he’s saying sometimes even though his voice sounds so clear.
Does this album sound like anything you grew up listening to?
It’s interesting because my parents weren’t musicians so I spent a lot of time shaping my own music taste. When I was eight, my sister showed me Paramore and took me to go see them. They have such a special place in my heart still but at that time I was so excited about music but I didn’t realize that girls were allowed in bands. I was finding out about all the pop punk stuff and there weren’t a lot of women so when I saw Paramore I was so excited because then maybe I could play in a band. I also listened to a lot of sweet mom rock and obviously my music taste has changed so much—it changes pretty much every day now.
3. "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite"
What are thoughts on what you’re hearing so far?
It’s definitely not what I expected at all. I don’t even know what I was expecting because I haven’t heard enough to have a cohesive idea of what they sounded like. But I think I was thinking I’d hear something more rockist. This is really theatrical and I feel like my mom would be down with this. I was also expecting something less warm and inviting. I thought it’d be harder.
If I showed you any song off Murmur , their first album, I think you’d get more jangly and driven rock songs.
Maybe that’s more what I expected. The vocals sound weirdly familiar to me. Maybe I’ve heard more R.E.M. than I thought I have.
4. "Everybody Hurts"
I feel like you know this one, it’s called “Everybody Hurts.”
[Sings] “Everybody Hurts,” oh yeah, I definitely know this one. It’s so hard to just not talk shit. I have a lot of thoughts on a lot of bands and I try to keep it deep inside because there’s a lot of sweet angels in bands you don’t like.
GPBB: Good people, bad band.
Yeah, definitely. But I’m really feeling this a lot. I’ve loved the strings in the couple of songs so far.
Fun story: Those were actually arranged by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
Whoa. Respect. I love Led Zeppelin. I listened to a lot of them growing up because of my dad. I also went to Rock and Roll Camp growing up from like ages 8 to maybe 12 or 13. I didn’t have a personal connection to it but I really felt like I had to learn all the hard guitar parts to out-shred all the rock camp boys. I learned a lot of those songs and also “Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson.
I like this song but I also feel like it might be really magical if it wasn’t kind of soiled by the context, like it’s in so many movies and stuff. I feel like I’ve heard it everywhere.
There are a lot of songs that are sometimes ruined by being oversaturated in pop culture.
Dude, totally. The other day we were listening to Queen’s “We Are the Champions” in the van and to be honest, I don’t like it at all but I feel like I would’ve given it more of a chance if it wasn’t in so many sports movies.
I did enjoy its use in The Mighty Ducks.
I have such a strong connection to The Mighty Ducks because I played hockey growing up. It’s a really hard sport to learn. I want to immerse myself back into hockey. I'm Washington Capitals fan. I almost wore my jersey today, actually. They’re not great this year: I don’t like Ovechkin’s style. He’s such a showoff and reminds me of a lot of boys I played with.
5. "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1"
This one’s been my favorite so far. What is it?
"New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” It might be telling that the instrumental is your favorite so far. This was also briefly featured in Baby Driver.
I really like this one. It’s warming my heart. I loved the way it started, it was really ominous and mysterious but then it got so warm and nice. It’s so minimal and I dig it.
6. "Sweetness Follows"
This was one of my favorite R.E.M. songs growing up.
Whoa, this is a little off-base but that thing he just did with voice there reminds me of that Alice In Chains song, “Rooster.” I know this is a completely different vibe, though.
It’s also crazy that this album had six singles and this wasn’t one of them.
That is sick. I love that they had six singles. Wild this isn’t one of them because I really like the style of this one. It feels like a nice bow on the wrapping paper of side one. Oh, I also love the guitar feedback coming in here. I don’t know why I thought they were a total alt-band.
This is at pretty much the peak of their popularity. All of these songs are pretty palatable.
This one’s definitely the most intense though. It’s kind of dissonant, kind of plucky. I like this more than the earlier ones. All the instrumental breaks are so cool.
7. "Monty Got a Raw Deal"
I don’t know if this a valid criticism but Michael Stipe’s voice sounds a little dated to me. It’s a little hard for me to connect to. It’s also a little theatrical like it has a drama in it.
Shout out to the bouzouki in this song.
Wow, that was very ren faire right there. It felt like a RuneScape loading screen. I’m the biggest Joanna Newsom fan and there’s that song “Leaving The City” that sounds like RuneScape loading music but in the sickest way. I’m so about it.
I also like this one! I’m trying so hard to formulate an opinion more than that I just like it. I feel like it’s something one of my friend’s dad’s would have on, in a good way.
It has a timestamp. I feel like I know the R.E.M. fanbase. This album reminds me of a flannel shirt from the ‘90s. I’m embarrassed to admit it but it also reminds me of Dave Matthews a bit. I think I need to bring out stompbox. We need a Dave Matthews renaissance. He’s one of my favorite things to talk about because I hate it in this really special way but “Crash Into Me” is one of my favorite songs of all time. I respect those melodies so much and then when the sax comes in there’s just tears streaming down my face but some of the lyrics are so creepy.
I haven’t heard that song in years. What are the creepy lyrics?
He sings, "Hike up your skirt a little more / And show the world to me” and then later “I’m the king of the castle / you’re my dirty rascal.” There’s just something about his voice singing that but there’s also something about him that keeps bringing me back.
9. "Star Me Kitten"
Apparently Meg Ryan had a hand in naming this song. Speaking of creepy lyrics, this song was originally called “Fuck Me Kitten” but now it’s “Star Me Kitten.”
Wait, “Star Me Kitten”? Like the word star?
Yeah, because Meg Ryan said that she’d never buy an album with “Fuck” as a song-title in her hometown growing up, and when the tracklist starred the remaining letters of the word like “F***” the band decided it’d be funny to just name it “Star Me Kitten.”
That’s kind of clever but I hate that this is what it’s called because I love this one. Hearing this melody is so nice. I like this song a lot!
I’m happy the story behind the title didn’t make you hate it.
Dude, this is so great. This might be an uncultured swine thing of me to say but this song kind of reminds me of an Arcade Fire record. I hate to compare this younger bands because older people will be pissed but I feel like I’m pretty well-versed in Arcade Fire. This sounds like Neon Bible. I was crazy about that album in high school.
10. "Man on the Moon"
I’m definitely feeling the second half a lot more. I’ve heard this too I’ve just realized. Whoa, I’ve actually heard this a lot of times.
Damn, any specific memories from this song?
No. It’s just crazy that I feel like I already know which notes are coming next. This is sick: really nice piano.
Wait, this is song I just heard in the van! This is song I woke up to in the van.
“Nightswimming,” which might be the one about the body of water you mentioned.
Yup, this song also feels like it could be in the play. The recording really feels like it’s live at the auditorium. I can almost see Michael Stipe onstage with his actor’s microphone with grand hand gestures. I think this one has its charm but it takes me too much back to playing guitar in high school plays. Theatrical stuff gets my goat in the wrong way. It is nice, though.
12. "Find the River"
So this is it, huh?
Yeah, this is last one of the album.
Oh, I like this already. It’s a really nice closer.
Is there an album that’s one of your favorites where if a friend hadn’t heard it you’d be absolutely shocked?
There are a lot of records in my collection that I consider to be classics but when I show them to my friends I realize they aren’t actually considered classics. Like, I love anything Red House Painters, same with Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, and especially Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. Even though it’s 2012, it’s her masterpiece. If you haven’t heard that, what are you doing, where have you been, and what kind of music are you listening to where it’s cool to ignore something like that? Fiona Apple superfan over here.
I thought the order of the album was really cohesive. I loved all of the closers, the side A and side B closers, and I loved the interlude track. It was arranged really nicely. I didn’t expect that I would enjoy it as much as I did. The R.E.M. that I have heard so far is really tight. I wonder what their first album sounded like since this was where they were at eight albums in. We have a lot of van time in our future coming up so I’m definitely down to dive deeper into their discography. Our touring doesn’t end for like eons after this little run we’re on currently.
Josh Terry is a writer in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.