Interviews: R.E.M.’s Best Album Side? Band Members Say It’s Not “Automatic”

By Greg Kot

Here’s a rundown of R.E.M.’s nine studio albums, with comments by Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe and Scott Litt, who took over as the band’s producer beginning with the Document album. Star ratings are by rock critic Greg Kot. [NOTE: 4 stars is the maximum rating]

Murmur (1983 ****), Reckoning (1984 **1/2) and Fables of the Reconstruction (1985 ***) established the band as jangly, enigmatic folk-rockers.

Stipe:Murmur is a great record to a lot of people, but to me it seems like another person made it It was 11 years ago, but to me it was 811 years ago.”
Mills:Murmur is just these excited kids having a great time discovering rock’n'roll and Fables is these suddenly old men discovering the tragedies of life. We grew up a lot in those two years. We were on the road constantly, dealing with what it meant to be a gnd, and it was a very ragged learning experience.”
Stipe:Fables reflects that time of utter craziness, uber insanity.”
Buck:Reckoning has ‘South Central Rain,’ which is still one of my favorite songs. It’s one of the first ones that Michael [Stipe] captured that eliptical way of writing that still managed to say something specific and tangible.”

With Lifes Rich Pageant (1986 ***) and then Document (1987 ***1/2), the band became more outspoken in its lyrics while turning up the guitars.

Mills: “At that point we were in the midst of all the Reagan-Buch b.s. and things just had to be said. We were discovering that we had a platform to rail from. It was just us exercising our influence muscles, and using it to do what we thought was good.
“Producer Don Gehman brought that out of Michael [on Pageant]. I love that record, because we were really powerful live at that point ad those are some of the best live songs: ‘Cuyahoga,’ ‘These Days,’ ‘Begin the Begin.’”
Buck: “The first side of Document is the best album side that we ever did. And then you flip it over and get the weird stuff.”

Green (1988 **1/2) was a transitional album. It went platinum and established the band as an arena act, but some of its more experimental tracks didn’t work.

Litt:Green led directly to the denser arrangements on Out of Time, but I don’t think it was formulated as well as the subsequent records. It had some clunkers. But we did ‘Turn You Inside Out’ with Keith LeBlanc, the Sugar Hill [hip-hop] drummer, and opened up some different ideas. In R.E.M.’s music there’s always something going on from the waist down, there’s a little bit of swing and sexiness to it.”

With Out of Time (1991 ***1/2) and Automatic for the People (1992 ****), the music took a dramatic turn inward. Where Out of Time was a lush tapestry of acoustic instruments, Automatic was sparse and even more emotionally wrenching. In contrast, Monster (1994 ***1/2) is the band’s hardest rocker yet.

Litt: “It was scary when we finished Out of Time because we had no idea how people would take it. The only thing we knew was that ‘Losing My Religion’ was a really easy song to listen to again and again.”
Buck:Automatic is the album that I think will hold up best the one people may think is pretty good 10 years from now. I was driving through the desert with a friend listening to it and saying, ‘We should probably break up. This would be a good place to stop.’”

Originally published on 27 November 1994 by Chicago Tribune

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