Thursday, November 16, 2017

R.E.M. - Automatic For The People (25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) (Craft Recordings, 2017)

Automatic For the People absolutely slayed me when I first heard it in college, and it has continued to be a touchstone recording in the succeeding years. It is rare in two respects, one being that it is one of the very few recordings in rock 'n' roll (or jazz or blues for that matter) that is improved by the subtle use of strings. The string arrangements were actually written by by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and they add subtlety and refinement to the record without sapping the raw emotional power of the lyrics, which are frequently heartbreaking tales of death and loss. This is a "mature" record that isn't stultifying, a ballad heavy album that thrived in the era of MTV with songs like "Everybody Hurts" and "Try Not to Breathe" broaching universal subjects of grief and pain that were rarely approached so honestly, in a fully developed manner that draws the listener and creates a very personal, intimate experience. They were still a rock band and the riveting political punk blast of "Ignoreland" spoke truth to power for both politicians and media outlets decades before the national nightmare of so-called "fake news." Throwing a nodding wink toward some American iconoclasts, the giddy "Man on the Moon" references comedian Andy Kaufman and the driving "Monty Got a Raw Deal" looks unflinchingly into the life and death of closeted screen legend Montgomery Cliff, much like The Clash did on their very own masterpiece, London Calling, with the song "The Right Profile." If there is any song that can hold a candle to The Kinks "Waterloo Sunset" as the most lovely popular song of 20th Century rock 'n' roll, it could be "Nightswimming" where singer Michael Stipe accompanied only by Mike Mills on piano, and the delicate and mysterious string section, weave magic using a minimal setting and a perfect song, they raise goosebumps. Here's something you might never hear me say again: this is a perfect album, flawless in material and execution. Which leads to the elephant in the room, this perfect gem of a recording is disc one in a three (four if you get the DVD) disc set in the 25th Anniversary Edition. It seems de rigueur in this day and age that any album that reaches a marketable anniversary is stripped bare and laid out on the autopsy table so we can weigh the brain and dissect the subject's last meal like we are in some kind of music based police procedural. Sometimes this works very well and adds a new level of enlightenment for the music it focuses upon, but sometimes perhaps discretion is the better part of valor (I adore King Crimson, but the Sailors' Tales box set is twenty-seven discs long and I will only hear it if some generous benefactor gifts it to me.)  In this case the package includes an period R.E.M. concert called Live at the 40 Watt Club 11/19/92. Now R.E.M. could be a dynamic live band but they seem oddly muted on this disc, which is further dragged down by long pauses between some tracks, Stipe stumping for a political candidate in a race long past due and Peter Buck complaining about the use of guitar capos. It was apparently a benefit concert, and it does have much of the music from the original album which is played well if a little bloodlessly. Most R.E.M. reissues have pared a concert with the original album, but there was surely a more exciting performance in the can than this one. Even more questionable is the nearly eighty minute long disc of album demos, and while this can be interesting (particularly for musicians)  and maybe the first time around for die-hard fans, there is something of sausage factory essence to the music (do you *really* want to see how it's made, or do you just want to enjoy it?) Songs are stripped bare of strings, and other trappings of production and "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" has an alternate title "Wake Her Up" as they stretch to bring the song in for a landing. Guitarists will find "Arabic Feedback" and "Bill's Acoustic" interesting, but for every revelation there seems to be two or three instances of padding, snippets that were never meant for public consumption but were parts of the creative process that heralded a greater whole. This will excite some people but for me it seems to drain the whole, taking some of the magic away and making a flawless forty-nine minute record into a three hour long exercise in exhaustion. Your mileage may vary of course, and I didn't see the DVD or accompanying liner notes which may have added needed depth and context to the project. I think it is important to consider how the modern re-issue industry approaches classic material, and how it is presented. In short, if you don't already have it, get the original album, it is an absolute landmark. If you are a die-hard fan, and can get the box at a decent price (the list price is north of seventy dollars) then have at it. Automatic For The People (25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition Deluxe Edition)

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