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Now It’s Time to Sing Along: R.E.M.’s ‘Automatic for the People’ at 25

The 1992 album is the perfect synthesis of the band’s indie rock roots and its arena rock stardom, full of deeply personal music that connected with the masses

R.E.M. Getty Images

When I was a teenager, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to imagine the melody to a song that didn’t quite exist. It was called “The Devil Rides Backwards on a Horse Called Maybe,” a legendary, uncompleted demo from the recording session for R.E.M.’s 1992 album Automatic For the People. I’d read about the song in a Melody Maker article that had been reprinted in a book called The R.E.M. Companion, and became obsessed with Peter Buck’s claim that the track would have been one of the group’s best ever if only his frontman had gotten around to writing the first few lines and the chorus. “Sometimes, he’ll come up with something so good, you just go ‘God, Michael, I wish you’d finish that,’” he told David Fricke. “Two more verses, ‘and it’ll be perfect.’”

“Devil Rides Backwards” is included on the 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Automatic for the People. It doesn’t sound like the song I imagined it was 20 years ago: it’s slower and more languorous, a saunter, not a gallop. (It’s also about a mule called “Maybe” rather than a horse). It’s lovely just the same, draping a minor-key acoustic guitar over warm, droning organ and precision piano strikes, but it would take two pretty darned good verses to make it perfect enough to warrant inclusion on one of the greatest records of the 1990s.

When Michael Stipe recently compared releasing demos to being flayed alive, he wasn’t just giving an interviewer the same kind of good copy he provided for years before his official retirement as a rock star in 2011. He was speaking earnestly about the choices faced by entertainers who pride themselves on quality control but are compelled — by the passing of time, or the nudging of their record company — to pop the hood and offer a peek inside.

What’s valuable about hearing the incomplete, palpably imperfect version of “Devil Rides Backwards” is that it provides insight into how a work of art as beautifully proportioned as Automatic For the People found its shape.

For instance, it takes about five seconds to realize that “C to D Slide 13,” another included outtake, is a vestigial version of “Man on the Moon,” the song that many fans would cite as R.E.M.’s greatest. Hearing Stipe suddenly stuck for words as Peter Buck’s guitar slides into the chorus is bizarre to say the least. (Legend has it that he added his vocals on the final day of recording). Some music is compelling because it retains the choppiness and dissonance of the creative process, but the twelve songs on Automatic For the People give an impression of effortlessness that is, paradoxically, at odds with the difficulty of their subject matter. Few albums feel so simultaneously wracked with despair and flush with the exhilaration of artists working at the top of their form.

Circa 1992, R.E.M. had been making things look easy for a decade. Their sterling run of albums for I.R.S. and Warners not only bridged the 1980s and 90s, but also collapsed the gap between the American indie scene and commercial mainstream, as well as the dialectic between privacy and populism. As inscrutable as their music could be, it seemed, by the time of 1991’s Out of Time, that it belonged to everybody. Just as Michael Stipe’s early shyness mutated into its own form of bravura showmanship — a magnetic awkwardness drawn in equal parts from David Byrne and Patti Smith — the band grew its sound and its audience to the point that both became stadium-sized; the incongruity of hearing a fragile song like Murmur’s “Perfect Circle” projected to the cheap seats in an NHL arena was offset by the fact that the singer’s charisma and the players’ musicianship made the transition seem as natural as anything.

One way to look at the dazzling, multifaceted object that is Automatic For the People is as a record that culminated and clarified its creators’ separate-but-equal tendencies towards the obscure and the universal. In song after complicated, contradictory song, Stipe and his bandmates reach out while retreating inward.

Take “Drive,” a wry, cynical sing-along located on the opposite side of the temperamental spectrum away from “Shiny Happy People.” Where the latter was an unexpected (and much-derided) top-10 hit that doubled down on the bright technicolored pop R.E.M spattered all over Green and Out of Time, Automatic’s lead track embraced a more monochromatic methodology. “Hey kids, rock and roll,” croaked Stipe, deliberately mimicking his spiritual protege Kurt Cobain’s bored drone on “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Stipe sang from the position of slightly jaded elder statesman: “Here I am now,” the song smirks, “entertaining you.”

Releasing such a harsh, grinding song as the first single off the album meant to follow up a multi-platinum, Grammy-winning triumph was one thing, but the major impact of “Drive” was televisual. Peter Care’s video finds Stipe crowd-surfing through a throng of fans whose excitement keeps him moving along while flashing an indifferent grin.

Besides offering a sideways commentary on the rough and ready physicality of grunge — this also being the year of Pearl Jam’s athletic “Even Flow” video — “Drive” suggested a conscious evacuation of Stipe’s rock-star responsibilities. There’s no grandstanding here, no posing: carried along by the in-crowd, the singer becomes a simple prop to occupy their time. Stipe would experiment further in this role-playing vein on Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and there are other tracks on Automatic For the People that extend this archness in different directions (the embittered, Bush-bashing riffage of “Ignoreland,” and the foul-mouthed come-ons of “Star Me Kitten.”)

On the gorgeous, surging “Try Not to Breathe,” Stipe adopts the point of view of an old woman facing her final days from a hospital bed. It’s a vignette that frames the album as a meditation on mortality (“I need something to fly over my grave again”) while also managing to distance the singer from matters of life and death. Considering that at the peak of his celebrity Stipe was dogged by rumors that he’d contracted HIV, it’s understandable that he’d want to adopt somebody else’s persona, but on Automatic’s most enduring songs, he seems to be singing from the heart. If you’d told the scruffy alt-weekly critics who raved about the cryptic Murmur in 1983 that the lyricist who came up with koans like “It’s so much more attractive inside the moral kiosk” and “We could gather, throw a fit” would eventually essentialize his message down to two brazenly sentimental words — “Everybody Hurts” — they’d probably have tried to canonize a different art-school band from Athens, Georgia (like Pylon, perhaps).

A massive hit that was quickly adopted as a theme song by anti-suicide groups, “Everybody Hurts” was nearly as iconic as “Losing My Religion” before it, but its trajectory was closer to “Shiny Happy People” — a plummet from pop-cultural phenomenon to punchline (Puff Daddy even crooned it at the beginning of the “All About the Benjamins (Remix)” video). Looking back, it’s possible to see the direct, unabashed attempt at universal empathy in “Everybody Hurts” — underlined by a Godard-inspired video that sees Stipe as a preacher figure exhorting gridlocked Angelenos to abandon their cars and roam free — as both the apex of R.E.M.’s career and the beginning of a precipitous reputational decline that had much more to do with fame, fortune, and ill-timed record-setting recording contracts than making any particularly bad music in the years to come.

Whether or not they ever went on to top Automatic For the People is another matter, of course, and maybe worth debating, although the closing one-two punch of “Nightswimming” and “Find the River” makes it hard to imagine anybody wanting to play devil’s advocate.

The latter might just possess the most haunting melody in the group’s entire back catalog, and while its lyrics don’t reach out as brazenly as “Everybody Hurts” — or with the same go-for-broke buoyancy as “Man on the Moon” — it exemplifies the album’s half-reticent, half-generous sensibility. “Nothing is going my way” the narrator admits at the end of the first chorus, a mournful, morbid sentiment that gets turned inside out in the song’s final lines, which hint at reconciliation and renewal. That the last words on an album so shadowed by death are “all of this is coming your way,” could be seen as a bleak joke, but Stipe’s gentle, hushed delivery transforms them instead into a fair-minded and life-affirming promise.