R.E.M.’s “Automatic For The People: 25th Anniversary Edition” Review

 

Depending on your perspective, R.E.M.’s 1992 album Automatic For The People is either one of their best, or their most uneven and inconsistent. But whether you adore it or just think it’s okay, you’ll find something to enjoy in the new Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition. In fact, the only real question is whether you buy the regular version on CD, the deluxe version on CD, the digital edition, or the vinyl.

R.E.M. Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition

Photo Copyright Anton Corbijn

 

Just so we’re all clear,

here’s a breakdown of R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition various formats. The regular CD has the album plus a live disc; the Deluxe CD has the album, the live disc, a third disc of demos, and a Blu-ray; the digital version has the album, the live show, and the demos; while the vinyl version is just the album.

First up on R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition is, of course, the album, which has been newly remastered. Though unless you have a good stereo, or want more than just this, it’s not worth the upgrade if you’re only going to listen to it on your phone or computer or with a crappy set of headphones.

Next, the regular version of R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition presents the band’s November 19th, 1992 show at the 40 Watt Club in their hometown of Athens, Georgia. A benefit for Greenpeace, this hour-long show was one of the few the band played in support for Automatic For The People. Though it’s not a show fans haven’t heard already; all of these tracks were released individually on the CD singles for Monster.

As for the show itself, it’s not the best one these guys have played, but it’s one of the best they’ve released. Especially as far as their album reissues go. While the deluxe editions of Murmur, Reckoning, Document, Green, and Out Of Time also included live albums, they were incomplete, and thus pointless. The Murmur one from 1983, for instance, didn’t include the two songs that opened the show, “Wolves, Lower” and “Moral Kiosk,” while others didn’t include some of the cover tunes they performed, including, oddly, “Superman,” from the Document-era show.

But the live disc on R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition is complete. Well, relatively speaking. While it doesn’t have the second performance of “Drive” that opened the encore, that’s actually okay since it’s not like they did the song differently the second time (though they did always play that song differently from how they recorded it). More importantly, this has every other song they played that night, including their take on The Trogg’s “Love Is All Around” as well as the ripping cover of Iggy Pop’s “Funtime” that led into the equally rockin’ version of “Radio Free Europe.”

The live disc on R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition is also interesting for including the stage banter, which is usually the first thing that gets cut from a live album.

As for the demos included in R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition, like similar collections — R.E.M.’s and otherwise — this doesn’t offer much in the way of completely new songs that you’ll want to listen to more than once. Many of the demos, including the ones for “Drive” and “Sweetness Follows” (here called “Cello Scud”), just sound like rougher versions of the originals, and thus only worth listening to out of curiosity. And that goes double for “10K Minimal,” the demo version of “Find The River,” and “C To D Slide,” a really loose early version of “Man On The Moon,” since the former just has singer Michael Stipe mumbling over the almost finished song, while the latter has Stipe mumbling over music that only has a passing resemblance to the album track.

R.E.M. Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition

Photo Copyright Anton Corbijn

 

In fact,

even when they are almost finished, many of the demos in R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition are not worth saving. “Mike’s Pop Song,” for instance, is a fully-formed pop song, just not a very good one.

That said, there are a couple keepers on R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition‘s demo disc. “Bill’s Acoustic,” “Bill’s Acoustic Idea” (which is a completely different song from “Bill’s Acoustic”), and “Arabic Feedback,” for instance, are all interesting instrumentals that stand on their own. Even cooler, “Devil Rides Backward” is a complete song that wouldn’t have been out of place on Automatic For The People. There’s even an early version of “Photograph” that doesn’t have 10,000 Maniac’s Natalie Merchant on background vocals which, based on how you feel about her, either makes this version better or worse.

Lastly, there’s the Blu-ray included in the Deluxe version of R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition, on which you’ll find all of the music videos they made for the album, the original electronic press kit they issued to promote it, a hi-res audio version of the album, and — most interesting but least helpful — a special version of the album that’s been specially remixed for Dolby Atmos, which is a rather elaborate version of surround sound.

Now, for the purposes of this review, I was only sent the digital files, and thus cannot comment on the quality of the hi-res version of the album. I also wasn’t sent the vinyl version for this review, which wouldn’t have helped anyway since I haven’t had a turntable since the mid-’80s. I have, however, seen all the music videos, and even saw the electronic press kit back in the day, and while they are interesting, having seen them before, I feel no need to see them again. Though I do appreciate their inclusion in this collection, since they are part of the story of this album.

As for the Dolby Atmos version of R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People, well, that I got to hear at an event held at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on a perfectly calibrated sound system. And yet, like so many surround sound versions of stereo albums, while some songs worked well, others did not. While “Drive,” “Try Not To Breathe,” and “Sweetness Follow” sounded like different mixes of those songs, ones with the drums and strings brought to the fore, the album’s more simplistic tunes — especially “Man On The Moon,” “Nightswimming,” and “Ignoreland” — didn’t gain much from the added dimension. Which is why, even if I had as elaborate a Dolby Atmos set up as the one they have at the Dolby Theater, I probably wouldn’t listen to this version again.

But then, I’ve never been all that impressed by surround sound albums. Whenever I listen to the quadrophonic version of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, I enjoy the space in “War Pigs,” but lose interest by the time I get to “Iron Man.”

While there’s a lot for fans to love about R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition, it’s not the complete picture it could’ve been. Or rather, should’ve been. Mostly because it doesn’t have such songs as “It’s A Free World Baby,” “New Orleans Instrumental #2,” or any of the other songs that the band released on the flipsides of the album’s singles and other places (though not including the fan club-only holiday single songs is understandable). It’s especially annoying given how the cool non-album instrumentals “Fruity Organ,” “New Orleans Instrumental #2,” “Organ Song,” and “New Orleans Instrumental #1 (long version)” are also, for some inexplicable reason, not included in the misleadingly titled Complete Warner Bros. Rarities 1988-2011.

R.E.M. Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition

In the end,

R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary Edition get a lot right and a lot wrong. This isn’t the complete version of the album it should’ve been, though what it does have is good. Especially the relatively uncut live album. As a hardcore fan who has to have everything, the Deluxe version is the way to go, but I certainly understand why someone would opt for the regular one instead.

Regular Version: 8.0/10

Deluxe Version: 8.5/10

 

 

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