Alright folks, buckle up, to mark the 25th birthday of one of the greatest albums of all time we’re going into the past. It’s going to be like an episode of Doctor Who, but without any green screen.
One of my earliest memories is listening to Michael Stipe singing The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight and thinking that whatever bastardised version of the lyrics I came up with was the title of the song. This carried on until I was nine years old, when I picked up a copy of Automatic For The People and took it the US with a CD Walkman. It was the only CD I brought along on that two week holiday. I only knew that one song. Bit of a leap of faith.
I remember bits and pieces of that trip. The vineyard wedding, the carousel in Martha’s Vineyard. Poison Ivy in the garden. My sister being ill on the last night in the top bunk.
But the whole experience was soundtracked by that album.
It’s hard to underestimate the impact Automatic For The People has had on my life. It sparked a lifelong obsession: I came home and accumulated every single R.E.M. release I could possibly find, starting with the newly released Reveal. I wouldn’t go anywhere without that CD Walkman and a hard black case full of discs, in case I wanted to switch from Green to Fables of the Reconstruction.
There were at least four years where the only albums I ever bought were R.E.M. records.
It was the soundtrack of years where the divide between what was cool and what was not became a gaping canyon, around the time I began to realise that I couldn’t sing or dance or play football. I tested out of primary school spelling tests and won an award for being the most exceptional pupil in my year (I’m not bragging, that’s literally what it says on the certificate) but I fit somewhere between the girls and the boys, accepted by neither. Which when I was nine, was a lonely place to be.
It took a long time – as in, into my late teens and early twenties – before I came to be comfortable with who I was. It was music that took me there, bands that would lead me further down this path that Buck, Mills, Berry and Stipe started me on. Nirvana, Rancid, Green Day, Nine Inch Nails. Bands that have shaped my tastes, my writing, my life. Something to run through my head when times were dark, or just a song that I fell in love with on the first listen and repeated over, and over, and over.
I’m now 26. Those opening notes of Drive still make my arms prickle. I have argued with people until I can feel my pulse in my neck about whether Everybody Hurts is a depressing song. (Have you people even listened to the lyrics?) I’m trying to convince Sean to make a stop in Georgia on our honeymoon to the US so we can go to Weaver D’s. (The diner with the “Automatic For The People” sign that inspired the album title.) It all started, this common thread that has run entwined with my memories and my life, with an Alba portable CD player in an old house in New Paltz, surrounded by unfamiliar street names and sunlight.
I’ve had favourite songs since then. I’ve had favourite albums. But none of them have ever blown the doors in my life open quite like this one, and I’m quite sure none ever will.
So here’s to you, Automatic For The People, in all your jangly baroque glory. You’re still my go-to choice when I need a record I can sit through without skipping a single song, you still set off an abundance of emotions in me, and I’m still finding new things I didn’t know. For an album that’s nearly as old as I am – and that I’ve been coveting for over fifteen years – that’s pretty good going.