Essential New Music: R.E.M.’s “Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition”

After a decade of steady growth and the massive success of Out Of Time, R.E.M. was in an enviable spot—and a tricky one. Whatever the band released next was destined to sell in the millions, but a critical backlash was overdue. Facing that peculiar pressure, the band made Automatic For The People, an instant classic in 1992 with a flippant title and a preoccupation with death.

That’s the myth, at least, and there’s quite a bit of truth to it. Mortality was clearly on Michael Stipe’s mind, and it informs the album’s most empathetic moments, from the transcendent “Try Not To Breathe” to the plain-spoken “Everybody Hurts.” Of course, there’s more to Automatic than melancholy and despair, and the 25th anniversary is the perfect excuse to revisit it. The deluxe edition includes a lively set at Athens, Ga.’s 40 Watt Club, 20 engaging demos, state-of-the-art mixes and some fine videos, plus a book of previously unseen photos and insightful new liner notes. But while the album justifies the lavish bonuses, if you get caught up in the myth, you might miss what a weird, wild work it is.

Beyond all the beautiful sadness, there’s joyful nonsense (“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”), a noisy screed against the GOP (“Ignoreland,” which only sounds more prescient now) and the most unabashedly erotic song R.E.M. had released up to that point (“Star Me Kitten”). In 1992, you could quibble about which outlier you’d drop, but a quarter-century later, it’s futile to imagine the album any other way. On Automatic, as in life, it’s those unpredictable textures that make the moments of grief both more keenly felt and easier to bear.

—M.J. Fine