Automatic For the People

Do you have a favorite album?  Is it even possible to single out one album and raise it above all others?  I never thought so. There is just too much great music out there to pick only one album.  What if we said that the album you have listened to more than any other one is actually your favorite, just for the sake of argument? What would it be?  That’s an easy one for me.

I can say with complete confidence that I have listened to Automatic for the People more than any other album.  REM made so many great albums, at least three of which are classics.  It’s this one though, that I have consistently come back to.  It was a huge hit, selling 18 million copies and spawning six singles, and that in itself is strange to me.  It’s hardly an upbeat affair but it was all over the radio and MTV.  Times have changed, huh?  Do rock bands sell 18 million copies of anything anymore? Does anyone or do people just stream and listen for free?  I think I’ve stumbled upon a future blog topic.

Getting back on track though…the melodies are a bit sad at times, as are the lyrics, which deal with loss and perhaps a longing for the past.  Maybe there’s a wistful remembrance of childhood?  “Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk”, Stipe sings on Man on the Moon. He sings about Nescafe(has anyone drank that since the 70’s?) and Andy Kaufman “goofing on Elvis”, and Dr. Seuss.  He sings about losing a parent and the possibility of losing a sibling in The Sweetness Follows. The Sidewinder Sleeps but with a playful nod to The Tokens.  It’s all so murky, lyrically,  and more about emotion than literal meaning to me.

And then there’s Nightswimming.  To me, it’s their all-time masterpiece.  The old photograph on the dashboard and every streetlight reveals a picture in reverse.  I love that imagery.  He’s reminiscing about skinny dipping and at the same time acknowledging that “these things they go away, replaced by every day”.  We’re not kids anymore.  Put some clothes on before you get caught!  September is coming soon.  The summer is gone, just like our childhoods.  The freedom of our teen years is behind us and we have adult responsibilities.  Put these lyrics together with that simple, brilliant, repeating piano line, and there you have it, my favorite song on the album that I have listened to more than any other.  Maybe I do have a favorite album.

6 thoughts on “Automatic For the People

  1. Wow! A single favorite album??? That is very challenging indeed. You know for me it would have to be a Lynyrd Skynyrd album. I really struggled with which particular one because my favorite Skynyrd tunes are spread out quite evenly over three different albums…but here it is….Second Helping. And NO, Free Bird is not included on this album. I love this album for its diversity. Lynyrd Skynyrd is politically complicated, kind of like me. Second Helping featured the quintessential Sweet Home Alabama. It presented an “in your face” conservative stance (perhaps even openly racist by extension of the tune’s support for Governor Wallace- not that I support that particular viewpoint). And let’s not forget their open rebuke of Neil Young in this southern man’s anthem. On to Don’t Ask Me No Questions. A Rocka Roller’s lament about the demands of life on the road and a need to simply spend a simple man’s time with real friends…perhaps talkin’ ’bout fishin’. I can relate. OK, next they tuned up their dobro for an homage to the influence of the delta bluesman/guitarist in Ballad of Curtis Loew. Whether Curtis was a real man or not, they made you feel like you lost an old friend by the end of that song. Swamp Music was exactly that….these boys knew their audience and completely captured the essence of backwoods livin’ in this fun tune that anyone who hunts behind a dog would appreciate. These guys were Southern Rockers of the highest order. They lived hard, and many of their members died hard. Yet, on this album Needle and the Spoon sends a direct message of warning to their listeners regarding the perils of hard drug/alcohol use (reflected yet again on other albums in such songs as That Smell and Saturday Night Special). Prophetic? Lastly, the album included a driving cover of JJ Cale’s Call Me the Breeze. They put their brand on this blues tune and made it their own. Who doesn’t love a Georgia peach….the two legged kind, as explained later by Ronnie Van Zandt’s father, Lacey.


      1. I can’t say it is my most played album…that would likely be Hot Rocks (best of the early Stones collection). But as far as tunes that I frequently play on the guitar and sing along to, many of these are standards.


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