Thursday, October 31, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 563: REM

It has been a crazy week so far, full of both stress and triumph.

On Sunday, our cat Vizzini started throwing up and couldn’t keep food down all day.  We spent Sunday afternoon at animal emergency, and then I returned for round two on Monday morning.  He was in care all day Monday and then whatever was causing him distress left as mysteriously as it arrived.  Today he finally seemed fully back to his old self, and I was never so happy to clean his litter box and find evidence that his digestive tract was again working correctly.

In happier news, Sheila was been selected as a finalist for the “Unlimited Woman” awards in the ‘style’ category.  This is no surprise to me, but if you don’t happen to know her awesome style blog, “Sheila Ephemera” then check it out!  She’s the one who encouraged me to start my blog in the first place.  She’s become a fashion icon along the way, inspiring women near and far to put their best and most fashionable foot forward and be fabulous.  Congratulations, Sheila!

Speaking of Sheila, here’s a review for another album she introduced to me – she inspires musically as well!

Disc 563 is…. Automatic for the People
Artist: R.E.M.

Year of Release: 1992

What’s up with the Cover?  I have no idea.  The head of a mace?  Early communist art?  A second world war tank obstacle?  I kind of like it even though I have no idea what it is.

How I Came To Know It:  This was a pretty big album, and I knew some of the singles from music videos (which were still a thing in the early nineties).  However it was Sheila that helped me know the album, as this is one of her favourites.

How It Stacks Up:  We have six R.EM. albums.  When I reviewed “Document” back at Disc 544 I said it was my favourite, but now that I’ve given a critical listen to “Automatic for the People” I’m going to have to admit that Sheila was right all along – it is their best.

Rating:  5 stars

I did a lot of driving around earlier this week, ferrying the cat to and from appointments and as a result I did a lot of listening to this album in the car, rather than on headphones walking to work.  Given the atmospheric sound of “Automatic for the People” this could have resulted in my giving the album short shrift.  Instead it drew me in so much that I gave it an extra day just so I could hear it on headphones as well.

Given how I was initially listening to it, it’s fitting that the record opens with a song called “Drive.” “Drive” is a good example of how songs throughout the record are constructed.  The song opens with a simple guitar melody and Michael Stipe’s haunting vibrato then cuts in with a perfect dissonance, like an undercurrent in a riptide, pulling the song in an unexpected direction.  Later, a string section swells in the background adding atmosphere before the guitar returns again, this time blasting out a mournful rift.

The whole album has the same layered approach as “Drive”, where each element of the song seems to develop just underneath the one preceding it.  Despite the layering the songs are simple at their core, and the effect never muddies them.  The album is a lot more polished in this respect than earlier R.E.M., but the polish only augments the music itself.

This is very introspective record, and many of the songs explore themes of alienation and depression.  “Try Not to Breathe” is the song of an old man who having lived a full life is ready to die.  It is a song that captures what I can only imagine; what it is like to be so close to death that to pass away is as simple as trying not to breathe.  It is a song that reminds us that the will to live is strong, sometimes stronger even than our own conscious desire to continue.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the album’s five-star gem, “Everybody Hurts.”  This is a simple song reminding us that even in our deepest depression, there are others all around us equally lost.  It is a sad song, but ultimately life-affirming.  Everyone may not be hurting about the same thing, but we’re all hurting about something.  The song’s construction is brilliant, starting with stripped down guitar and piano and Stipe singing his simple plea:

“When your day is long
 And the night, the night is yours alone
 When you're sure you've had enough
 Of this life, well hang on

“Don't let yourself go
 'Cause everybody cries
 And everybody hurts sometimes”

The song slowly builds from mournful isolation into an orchestra of triumph as Stipe repeatedly calls on us to ‘hold on.’  Songs like “Everybody Hurts” can very easily go wrong and end up sounding false and forced, but the band nails this one.  When I’m having a bad day, hearing this song makes me feel like things are going to be alright.  When I am having a good day, hearing this song reminds me to put an arm around a friend who isn’t doing as well and give them comfort.  The song isn’t just about hope, it is about that quality we’re all going to need more of for our crazy species to make a go of it in the long run – empathy.

Sweetness Follows” and “Night Swimming” are particularly pretty songs that remind me to appreciate and fully experience life, whether it is because one day we’ll lose those close to us (“Sweetness Follows”) or simply because we can remember great moments of living, like the first time you go skinny dipping at night with friends (“Night Swimming”).

The political commentary is a slight weakness on the album, and as I noted in previous reviews, “Ignoreland” is an OK song, but I prefer “Exhuming McCarthy” from “Document” for both its tune and its more subtle delivery.  This is not enough to knock this album out of five star territory, however.  “Automatic for the People” is just too strong overall.

The album is a tasteful twelve songs, and is slowly but inexorably wraps you in its spell.  The ambient quality to the production wraps you up like you are swimming in the ocean; cold at first, but then buoyant and immersive, making you feel the enormity of something larger than yourself.

While I can appreciate why a lot of fans prefer the more raw sound of earlier albums, for me this album is them at their best, even if it took a whole bunch of years for me to finally realize this was the case.

Best tracks:   All tracks, although less so Ignoreland and Star Me Kitten

No comments: