I was 31% of the way through Infinite Jest when I realised I no longer had any idea what was going on in David Foster Wallace’s novel. It felt like this lengthy diversion about rehabilitation from substance addiction had no origin and no destination, and at roughly the same time I began to yearn for a simpler and yet more powerful meditation on America. I put on R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People.
In 1992, when R.E.M. were still short in the tooth, they made the definitive summer-evening album. It has its radio-friendly moments, of course, but even some of the hits are laden with humid, crepuscular imagery. And in its sleepy nether regions lurk contemplative songs full of strange, backwater arrangements that could never be replicated by others, but were maybe hinted at in certain portions of certain Radiohead albums.
Look past the uptempo modern rock of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and “Man on the Moon”, and instead to the languid opener, “Drive”, and the rustling percussion beneath “Try Not To Breathe”. On the former, the introduction of a piercing lead guitar from Peter Buck is like a sudden violation—very much of a piece with much of the album’s lyrical content. A little later, on “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1”, Michael Stipe takes a break while the music—crunchy Rhodes and a keening electric guitar, chiefly—evokes an idea of loss. At the back-end of the album, “Nightswimming” and “Find The River”, both heavy with watery allusion, could have turned out maudlin but are instead glorious in their sense of despair. Throughout, in the unnervingly jangly acoustic guitars and the near-continuous organ, there is a feeling of America come unbound.
The casual listener tends to dwell on the ubiquitous “Everybody Hurts”, but arguably the superior downbeat moment is in “Sweetness Follows”. At a funeral for the narrator’s parents, a church organ hints at salvation, only to be torn apart by a forlorn cello and the rending squalls of feedback Buck coaxes from his guitar. As in the music, so too the lyrics. “Distanced from one, blind to the other,” Stipe intones, refusing to judge whilst pointing at strains in the bloodline.
I don’t exactly know why, but there’s a recent album that makes me think about R.E.M. Days, the second full-length from New Jersey’s Real Estate, is considerably sunnier and more nostalgic than Automatic For The People. Whereas Stipe trades in discontent, puzzlement and hurt, these boys’ childhoods strike overwhelmingly positive notes, which are stamped all over the record.
I suppose, if pushed, I would draw one’s attention to the shared sense of summer having passed just round the bend, and along with it simpler times. I would also point you in the direction of Matthew Perpetua’s catablog, Pop Songs 07-08, on which the man who now helms BuzzFeed’s music coverage documents every single R.E.M. song (not quite true). On the blog’s About page, Perpetua offers his reason for so doing: “They’ve just written a staggering number of incredible songs”. Through it all, we can cling to the strength of their material as a pop group—a multimillion-selling, major-label, arena-packing pop group, albeit one who imbued their songs with sophistication and depth of feeling and, on occasion, wit. On Real Estate’s “Younger Than Yesterday”, Martin Courtney pithily summarises his songwriting technique thusly:
“If it takes all summer long,
Just to write one simple song,
There’s too much to focus on—
Clearly there is something wrong”
With their reverb-drenched jangling guitars, leisurely tempos, and lurking intelligence about society, Real Estate might, arguably, mature into a hipster’s R.E.M.
“You don’t owe me anything / You don’t want this sympathy” —Monty Got A Raw Deal