Automatic For The People: The End
Ahh man, it’s finally over. I have written about every song on Automatic For The People. That’s just lovely!
I never thought I would be able to do this, so at the expense of sounding full of myself, I’m extremely proud of myself. This album, I never thought I would be able to write about it, not even a word. From the first moment I heard it and loved it, I never thought I’d be able to take these feelings and put them down. I thought it was way too daunting.
To be honest? There’s so much more I could have said, of each one of these songs. So much more. I probably won’t go back and read these posts for a very long time because I’ll just hem and haw over what I missed, points I could have elaborated on, feelings that I didn’t express. I could spend the next two weeks writing about these songs all over again, and they’d probably be entirely different. It keeps changing. I’m still trying to figure these songs out. I’m sure I never will, and that’s kind of amazing. There’s so much here.
But I’m satisfied. Automatic For The People is my favorite album ever, and revisiting these songs - giving each one the in-depth treatment I feel it deserved - was a real pleasure. It was almost therapeutic.
I those good feelings came across. I hope you felt a little bit of that love. Cuz that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
Beyond personal feelings, I’ll always hold Automatic For The People as proof positive that you can be blockbuster-level successful without sacrificing an ounce of your integrity or artistic ambition. It’s an inspiration, to me. It’s a record that pushes me to be better, to be open an honest and the best version of myself. The best example of what popular music is capable of achieving.
As I write this, springtime less than two weeks away. The sun is coming out. Things are looking up. I started writing obsessively about R.E.M. near the end of January, when winter was at its worst and it felt like there was no way out. And it’s ended here, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s lifted my spirits, writing so much about my favorite band. There’s nothing better than getting back in touch with something you love. Such a good feeling.
Thanks again for reading. Thanks for letting me put some stuff out there. Expect more writing from me soon!!
Automatic For The People: “Find The River”
I’m almost always a wreck by the time I hit “Find The River,” Automatic's last song. Eleven songs of loss, hurt, mourning, healing, anger, beauty, and one final moment of clarity with “Nightswimming.” Finally, we've found peace. We've found a way to keep going, to live with the tragedy we've gone through. We know we're going to be OK, that life does go on, that things do get better. The promise of “Everybody Hurts” and “Sweetness Follows” is fulfilled.
But it’s time to move on. “Nightswimming” resolved our arc, and now it’s time to go. Time to pick ourselves up, to walk forward, to pull ourselves out of the endless navel-gazing we’ve allowed ourselves after this rough life experience. You can’t do that forever, you can’t dwell in that. You have to have the courage, the strength, to pick up the pieces and move on. And you can do it. “Find The River” is not an ending. It’s the beginning of a better life.
That’s hard to accept. You do need to move on. When someone you love dies, they are not coming back, and that’s it. You always think that closure is coming, that there’s going to be one moment that makes it all better. You’re going to have a good cry at their funeral, or your mom will find an old book of your grandma’s where she wrote a little dedication to you, FINALLY telling you how she REALLY feels about you. You look to the skies, with a tear in your eye, and you know that everything is gonna be alright.
That’s a movie thing. You always wait for that to happen, but it never does. The tough thing about loss, about losing a loved one or anything that means something to you - a house, a friend, a romantic relationship - is that it never goes away. You’re always going to feel it, and it’s always going to suck. With time comes perspective, of course. You’ll learn to handle those rough loss feelings, to use them for good, to make yourself better. But they will always hurt. That will never change. And it’s OK.
You remember that Pete & Pete episode, where Little Pete’s lizard dies and he does everything he can to make sure the world remembers him? He makes a JFK Eternal Flame for him, has everyone hold hands in rememberance, has a big funeral service for him. Nothing makes him feel better. He’s trying to manufacture that moment, trying to give his lost bud the ultimate tribute that will not only make him feel better, but spread that love to everyone else. It never works.
It gets me every time, ‘cause that’s me. That’s always been me. When I lost my two cats after the fire, we never did any kind of funeral service for them, any memorial. I know that sounds silly for cats, but it meant a lot to me. There was no closure. I felt like they were ripped away from me, like they just disappeared and I never got to say goodbye. I wanted to say goodbye. I never did. I never could. I don’t think a memorial would have helped, but I was convinced it would.
There is no closure, with death. None. A couple years after the fire, my other cat Spanky had to be put down, and I insisted on being with him. I was there, in the room with him, when they did it. I thought it would make things easier, knowing exactly how it happened. It didn’t. It only made things worse.
There’s no easy, simple way to get over a loss. There just isn’t. This thing will always be with you. You can’t, and shouldn’t, forget it. What you can do is say, “I am going to move on. I am going to feel better. I am going to go outside and live my life. It’s a beautful day.” The choice, in the end, rests with you.
Michael Stipe’s vocal on “Find The River” is his most confident and assured, which is what hits me the hardest. He’s not afraid of what’s ahead, he has reached a moment of clarity and can express his feelings clearly and beautifully: “Me, my thoughts are flower-strewn / Ocean storm, bayberry moon / I have got to leave to find my way.” Then comes the line: “Nothing is going my way.” Sounds negative, but it isn’t. At the end of the day, this is a journey you need to take yourself. Nobody is going the way you’re going, nobody can make everything OK for you. Family and loved ones will help you out, but this path is yours and yours alone. You need to walk it.
And then, we get a surprise - “Find The River“‘s second verse is cut short by the chorus, with Michael singing with more power and confidence than ever: “I have got to find the river." There’s no question now - he’s leaving. It’s time to go, and there is no stopping him.
It’s an amazing moment, but something else happens here: far off in the distance, we hear the voice of Mike Mills. He’s so far back he’s almost inaudible, but he is there, you can hear him. And he’s wailing. He’s almost shouting, wordlessly, overcome with the emotion and vulnerability you don’t hear in Michael’s vocal. Michael’s confidence dominates “Find The River,” but Mike Mills is always there behind him.
It’s Mike Mills’ vocal that affects me the most in “Find The River,” and after a long time I know why. Michael Stipe’s voice - confident, ready to move on, courageous in the face of tragedy - is who I want to be. Mike Mills’ voice - overemotional, hurting, still not willing to let go - is who I am. Hearing them both at the same time is like nothing else. I feel like I am facing myself.
And then those ending lines: “Pick up here, and chase the ride / the river empties to the tide / All of this is coming your way.” That last line, it’s like someone is placing their hand on your heart. Michael is addressing you, for the last time. Good things are coming your way, if you let them.
It’s a real last line, and right after he sings it we hear Mike Mills hit one last resolved note. The pain leaves his voice. He sounds calmed, satisfied. His voice fades, and the song fades. And the journey continues.
That’s me. I’m getting there. I hope you are, too.
"Uh, anyway - the chorus of the song - "Call me when you try to wake her up," said really fast, over and over again. Kind of a call and response, with Stipe saying it and then the rest of the band chiming in. Near the end he starts going, "I can always sleep standing up!" in a really giddy voice that just warms my dumb little heart. The song just sounds like this joyous celebration of the small, stupid things in life - something Automatic doesn’t have that much of. I can’t get enough of it, simply put."
18 year old Sean Rose writes about “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” for the first time, approximately days after first hearing it, April 1st 2006. It is creepy reading this, I would like to think my writing has gotten leaps and bounds better in the past 8 years but I still see so much of my current style in this post
Some things just DON’T change
This was before the house fire, before alot of rough stuff happened. Hang in there Rose
Automatic For The People: “Nightswimming”
Mystic chords of memory. “Nightswimming” is a memory. It is that one memory, one that comes back to you, all of the sudden, stopping you dead in your tracks. A memory that reminds you of who you used to be, a life you used to lead. A part of you that is gone forever. Save for this memory. This memory is all that is left, and it overcomes you. It becomes you. For a moment - one fleeting, impossible moment - you are living in the past again, in a memory of a happier time. For one moment. And then it’s gone.
And what can you do? You sit there. You feel it. You stare down time, gawking, slack-jawed in awe. Powerless. What is that memory now? Nothing. It’s gone. A vision. A hallucination. But it’s with you. You saw it, you felt it. A vision that will stay with you forever. Mystic memory.
The story goes that Mike Mills wrote the piano piece for “Nightswimming” by himself, a circular pattern with seemingly no ending. To his surpise, Michael Stipe heard it and wrote lyrics: “I never thought it would amount to much because it was just a circular thing that kept going round and round and round. But it inspired Michael.”
It’s not hard to hear why. You hear that piano and how can you not stop dead in your tracks? How can you not remember? It hits you immediately. The piano in “Nightswimming” comes from another time and place. It awakens something deep within us, reminds us of something good in a time of need. That’s clearly what it did to Michael Stipe.
Everyone has their own lyrics to “Nightswimming.” We all have our own memory, when we hear this song, that piano. Everyone could write their own set of lyrics, their own intangible beautiful memory that makes them pause. What is remarkable about “Nightswimming” is that Michael’s own memory takes center stage: a young man, nightswimming with friends. That’s all, really. He doesn’t tell a story, doesn’t name names, doesn’t give much context. He only tell us what he sees, what we all see when we remember: a snapshot. A brief moving image. A location. A vision. A feeling. “September is coming soon.” You remember how you felt, all those years ago. It goes beyond memory - you’re making a connection with who you used to be. Only for a moment.
Michael tells us his memory, and we relate to it. He doesn’t relate the specifics, he relates the emotion behind it. It’s a remarkable feat, that a song about one memory could evoke all of ours. Michael seems to understand this feeling so well, knows how to communicate it so simply and strongly, it gives me goosebumps. In “Nightswimming,” we are witnessing a man struck by a memory right before our eyes. There is no doubt. I have no doubt Michael was living this memory as he sang the song. I just feel it.
"The photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago." That’s all it takes. One little thing. And then you’re back there again. It’s that quick, that simple. Memory.
I won’t get into the memories I see. I’ve told you enough of those. But here is the line that affects me in “Nightswimming” more than most: “These things, they go away / replaced by every day.” I can’t imagine truer words. Seeing and feeling an old memory can hurt, really hurt. Because you realize that part of you is gone, part of you that you never thought would be gone. And it went away without you even noticing. Friends and family members become estranged, apartments and living spaces are left behind, people and places you treasured are lost forever. You leave these things behind without a second thought, just living your life as normal. And then years later, they come back. They come back as a trace of a memory, and you remmeber that part of you is gone. And it hurts.
I tell you, after I lost my house, I had moments like this every other day. Every day. I would remember one little thing that I had, one little part of my life that I lost in the fire - a book I was reading, a secret corner of my bedroom I’d lie in, a cat I would feed every morning - and I would have to stop everything, sit down, and just stare. Stare at nothing. Let the memory hit me. Traces of me, gone forever. It crushed me. It was so hard. Tears falling down my cheeks. Because that part of me was dead, and it was not coming back. And all I had left was a scrap, a trace.
It still happens. Sometimes I still remember. It has not become easier.
"Nightswimming" will not allow us despair. It asks us to take one last look at this memory, one last beautiful and heartbreaking look, and to let it go. "Nightswimming deserves a quiet night." We have come a long way, listening to Automatic. We’ve been through everything, every high and low. “Nightswimming” is remembering that part of our past that we lost after a tragedy, that one happy memory, and giving it rest. It hurts so much - you don’t want to let that part of yourself go, you can’t do it - but you have to. You have to let it go.
God, I don’t know if I can do it. It’s hard. We want to relive our past, we want to relive happy memories. But we can’t. We need to grow, we need to love. We need to accept what we’ve learned from our past, and walk forward. But before we do, “Nightswimming” gives us one last look.
One last look. That’s it. Time to go.
Final 33 1/3 series proposal count: 410 First of all: 410 declarations of love and adoration are due to those who submitted proposals. The hard work and careful thought that went into these proposa…
Hey whoever proposed Apple Venus Vol. 1, let’s talk!!
Automatic For The People: “Man On The Moon”
"Man On The Moon" is a song about belief, spirituality. The belief in something that we can’t see, that we can’t possibly prove, but that we can feel. It is such a subject, such an impossible thing to ponder at times, and yet something we all think about. We have all had a personal journey of belief, in one way or another. It’s different for everybody, but “Man On The Moon” manages to tap into its universal underpinning, the question that lies underneath belief: is there something out there? Is there a guiding force beyond ourselves, watching us? Helping us? Hurting us? What is out there? Will we ever know? And if not, are we willing to take that leap and believe? To have faith?
Oh, such a subject. I am going to take a moment to talk about this on a personal level, because I feel it is important in explaining what “Man On The Moon” means to me, what it does for me. And also because I am not sure when else I am going to have this chance again.
I was not raised religious. My parents both came from semi-devout Christian upbringings, but were a little stung by them and didn’t pass them onto their children. They weren’t cynical, they weren’t atheist. They had Christian beliefs, but never really talked about them with us, never made it the forefront of our lives. Until age 11, I never went to a church on Sunday. Religion wasn’t part of my world. Most of my friends were Catholic and would talk about mass, confession, Sunday school classes. None of this meant much to me. I didn’t understand it, couldn’t relate to it.
I ended up attending a liberal protestant church from 11 until around 16. I didn’t leave because I stopped believing, but because I was tired of going to church on a Sunday. I wanted to sleep in. Teenager stuff. My parents had already stopped going, so what was the point? They didn’t stop me from leaving. They didn’t care. As far as I can remember, we only started going in the first place because of the human connection at the congregation, the idea of being part of a loving community. It was nice, to have that. After we lost that there was no point in continuing. Might as well just live your own spiritual life on your own terms.
Something did happen. Shortly after I stopped attending church I had a real crisis of confidence, a feeling of fear that overwhelmed me. I was scared to death of not believing in Christianity, of going to Hell. This sounds silly, but I started reading Jack Chick tracts, those fire-and-brimstone tracts you find at gas stations that say “if you aren’t this kind of Christian, you are going to Hell and that is it.” I started reading them as a ha-ha funny joke, but in my vulnerable state of mind the seed was planted: what if this is right? What if Hell is real? What if I’m going there?
I can’t explain the rationality of this line of thought. There wasn’t one. In retropsect, it was along the lines of what some fundamentalist preachers say to argue against athiesm: if athiests are right, then there’s nothing beyond death and there won’t be any punishment in the afterlife. If athiests are wrong, they go straight to Hell. Why risk athiesm, then? Why not believe in Hell, and work to avoid it?
This question crushed me. For a good solid month. I was terrified. This was the one serious disadvantage of not growing up in a devout religious household - I had never been faced with this question, like alot of kids my age had been. I had never been faced with that guilt, the discipline. Nobody had told me I was going to Hell before. Now it felt like somebody was.
The idea of Hell terrified me so that my sense of logic, of rationality, was gone. To a logical person, the idea of Hell - a place where people are tortured forever, without respite, for not believing a very speciic belief system - is senseless. But what if the afterlife doesn’t operate on sense? On logic? On the same morals we do? What if the universe, the force beyond ourselves, was malevolent? Was cruel and unfeeling and stupid? What if the force that created us wanted us to suffer? What if being a good person isn’t enough?
So negative. I didn’t know how to get out of it. Here was the watershed moment, as I remember it: I put on “Hey Jude” by the Beatles and I cried. I cried, because I felt inside of me this feeling of warmth, of goodness, stronger than anything else I had felt. And I told myself, “the universe can’t be malevolent, can’t hate me, because I am feeling this. I am feeling this and it is real, because I am feeling it. I will not deny what I am feeling.”
To wit: “There must be something good out there. There has to be. Because I can feel it.”
This feeling has gotten me through alot of rough stuff. This has gotten me through the house fire, through sudden deaths of loved ones that don’t make sense, through periods of depression and doubt. This has kept me together.
This, to me, is “Man On The Moon.” A song that looks to the heavens, the world out of our sight, not with fear but with wonder. The endless possibilies, the idea that wonderful things can happen and are happening. A song that recognizes and admires rational thinking, but finds joy in things we can’t explain. Gosh, who knows what’s out there? Isn’t it amazing to think about?
Yes, Andy Kaufman and Elvis Presley might both be dead and in the ground and that’s the end of the story. But what if they’re both in heaven, cracking each other up? What if they’re both alive, cracking each other up? What if belief in heaven is real, what if the conspiracy theorists are right? Why can’t they be? If humankind is capable of sending a man to the moon, who knows what else we’re capable of?
The capacity for wonderful things to happen in our universe is endless. Endless. What I love about “Man On The Moon” is that rational thinking and spiritual belief are never separated, never exclusive. They might be one in the same. Even as rational people, we should always allow our minds to be open, to marvel at things we can’t understand. To let that wonder fill our hearts with goodness, with joy, and to make us better people. This is “Man On The Moon.”
What was that Carl Sagan quote? About not mocking a widow having a conversation with her husband at his grave? This is “Man On The Moon.” The universe is a huge, terrifying place that we will never truly understand. Let us not cower in fear, let us not let the unknown scare us or disempower us. Let us find the courage to believe, to believe in something good. That is what I take from this. That is what I am trying to do.
I don’t know if it’ll ever work. I don’t know if I will ever find solace in thinking of the afterlife, of the unknown. I don’t know where my loved ones have gone after they have died. I don’t see them anymore, and I will never see them again. It shakes me, even years later, to accept this thought. I don’t know where they are. There is nothing scarier than that.
"Man On The Moon" understands. It understands, like everything else on Automatic understands. And it lifts me. It makes me feel better, it makes me want to look at the night sky and smile, knowing the good that is out there. There is good, always, and it cannot be disproven. It is a blessing. What else can be said?
Automatic For The People: “Star Me Kitten”
The last four songs on Automatic For The People are a piece unto themselves, four songs of otherworldly beauty and grace, taking us somewhere deep inside ourselves. Beyond what we know. “Star Me Kitten” is our bridge, one of the most beautiful and ethereal songs I can name. I hear it and I stand in awe, gawking at it, shaking my head trying to figure it out. I’m not sure how it got here, how it was made how it was made, but here it is.
What we’re hearing: Mike Mills’ voice, layered on itself over and over again, played on a mixing board. The effect is something hard to describe - it’s like you’re walking into an old church late at night, and the walls are singing to you, surrounding you and lifting you up. You hear them and you can only sit there and take it in. It’s almost paralyzing. Mike Mills has always been R.E.M.’s second singer, usually filling in background parts and taking lead here and there, but he’s never used his voice like this. It’s less a background vocal and more a tapestry, the unspoken emotion behind the song. I’ve never heard anything like it.
Percussion is just a lightly tapped cymbal, and we have a sweet guitar melody guiding us through. “Star Me Kitten” could have worked as another instrumental, taking us to Automatic's final act in a haze of alien sublime. An act of hypnotism. That could have well been the intent. But then we have Michael Stipe's vocals, low low low, far below his register, the opposite end of his “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” vocal. Lower than he can handle, until his voice cracks and loses strength. Ragged, old. Not like Michael Stipe.
The lyrics allude to someone trying to convince an old lover of theirs to have sex with them. It’s desperate, and it’s a little skeevy: “You are wild / and I’m in your possession / nothing’s free / so fuck me, kitten.” Uncomfortable lyrics - is this an older man singing to a younger woman? “Kitten”? Problematic to be sure, but with Michael singing it’s hard to be too upset. His voice is fragile. Considerate. He lends this character some dignity, a touch of the unknown. He feels less predatory and more broken, pitiful. He’s reaching out to this person to bring some feeling back, like a ghost trying to touch flesh and blood. One last act of affection, one last good feeling before he dies. He needs it. He’ll do anything for it. I don’t think he will get it.
This song is his temple. The guitar follows his vocal melody, singing with him, supporting him. The sound here isn’t one of heartbreak or pain. There’s a peace to this song, a comfort. As desperate as this man is, he sounds thankful that he even has the feeling, that he has the capacity to love and be loved. He believes that there is still part of him left in this former lover, and that he can get it back: “You, me, we used to be on fire / if keys are all that stand between / can I throw in the ring?” Even if renewed love won’t happen, he is in awe of the possibility.
It’s a beautiful vocal. The range of emotion Stipe displays on this one record, all with his voice, is remarkable to me. The emotional vocabulary is so nuanced and distinct. How can one voice do all of this?
Writing about music is hard. You are writing about something that is, by its very nature, intangible. Above you. Floating in the ether. It’s something I have struggled with for a long time, years and years, and something I am sure I will struggle with for many years to come. Because I am going to keep loving music, and I will always need to say something about it, to try and find some way to express it. And I am always going to be at a loss, no matter how hard I try.
I knew what I was getting myself into, trying to talk about Automatic. An album of inscrutable, gorgeous songs. “Star Me Kitten” is the hardest for me to talk about, the hardest to grasp. I’ve said enough about it already. It won’t help to say anything more. I am tapping out. The best thing you can do is hear it for yourself, let it stay with you, let affect you and pull you in. If there was one song I’d want someone to hear from Automatic, one that clues them in to the studio magic and next-level beauty found within, this would be it.
Automatic For The People: “Ignoreland”
"Ignoreland" is a pissed-off political rocker, specific and uncompromising in its anger, one of the biggest and best rock songs R.E.M. ever recorded. To say that it doesn’t make sense on Automatic is to not understand the record and what makes it special. Right when Automatic is in danger of getting too samey, too navel-gazing, too mopey, we get “Ignoreland.” A song that shakes us and wakes us up, taking all the misguided rage that’s built up over the course of the record and directing it outward, towards tangible and real forces that we can easily name.
What might turn people off to “Ignoreland” is that it’s not a vague, universal anti-government song, the kind you might expect from Automatic. “Ignoreland” is specifically anti-Republican, anti-Reagan, anti-Bush, pro-Democrat. Calling “Ignoreland” dated is only stating objective fact: Michael literally dates the song in its lyrics (“1980, 84, 88, 92 too!”). It’s a song that reminds you, yes, Automatic was released right before the 1992 United States Presidential election, and yes, R.E.M. were actively campaigning for the Clinton/Gore ticket around that time. It’s definitely strange, hearing this after “Sweetness Follows” and “Monty Got A Raw Deal.”
"Ignoreland" is the one song that threatens Automatic's appeal as a consoling record for anyone to enjoy. I can't imagine a Republican getting this far into the record and not being infuriated (but I also can’t imagine many Republicans listening to R.E.M., so there you go). “Ignoreland” isn’t just Stipe voicing dissent - Republicans here are straight-up villains, Monty Burns-esque caricatures, horrible old men who swindled the election in 1980 and ruined the country. It’s important to remember that, by 1992, Republicans had controlled the country for over a decade. R.E.M. needed to blow off some steam, so why not do it on Automatic? The first word in the song is “Bastards!” “Fuck you, man!” Michael says the F-word! This is real anger!
But then you hit the bridge lyrics, and things start to come into focus. Full disclosure: I’m pretty left-leaning myself, and while I admire the fire and conviction of “Ignoreland“‘s accusations and know where they are coming from, I would be uncomfortable if there was nothing keeping them in check, no self-awareness or perspective. And so, we get these lyrics:
"If they weren’t there, we would have created them / Maybe it’s true
But I’m resentful, all the same / Someone’s got to take the blame”
And, furthermore, the next verse:
"I know that this is vitriol / No-solution spleen-venting
But I feel better having screamed, don’t you?”
Ohhh, thank goodness. There we go. In the middle of all this anger, Michael takes a moment to recognize us, to let us in on how he’s feeling and make sure we’re cool with it. And it’s here that “Ignoreland” makes its connection with the rest of Automatic: “someone’s got to take the blame.” He recognizes that, while his anger might be justified, there’s personal hurt in there too. It’s not that black-and-white simple, because nothing is, but it feels good to say that it is. “I know that this is vitriol.. but I feel better having screamed, don’t you?” Doesn’t it feel good, to let it out? To forget the shitty things you’re feeling and pin them on someone else? On the fucking Republicans? Fuck those jerks!
He even says it: “we would have created them.” Heck, maybe if we were in power, we would fuck everything up too. But who cares? Who has time for that?
Not to mention that Michael’s voice is intentionally distorted, sounding like it’s blaring over a PA system. It’s chaotic, it’s directionless. An attempt to expose the silliness, the misguided nature of his rage. Michael knows he’s being a little over the top, and he lets us all see it.
But “Ignoreland” never entirely discredits itself, and still works as a great political song. It never comrpomises its beliefs. That’s why I love it, and why I’m glad R.E.M. kept it on Automatic, never axed it for not being thematically appropriate for the record. By including “Ignoreland” here, R.E.M. are saying that fervent political anger is as much a part of the healing process after tragedy as anything, an important human emotion that should not be discounted or ignored. Even if that vitriol has no solution or direction, even if it’s silly and you feel silly for saying it, it’s valid because you are feeling it. And you should not devalue your own emotions just to appease other people. That’s the subtle message of “Ignoreland,” one that even far-right folks can agree with.
And I mean, it’s just a rad political rock song. They hadn’t attempted a song like this since “Orange Crush” on Green, and I think “Ignoreland” is a couple of steps above it. I call it a “rocker” but there’s no guitar riff, really? It’s like a mixed-down electric guitar, a few acoustic guitars, a weird bass. And a harmonica? I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s a powerful mix that works. “Ignoreland” lets out every last ounce of energy that we have, before Automatic's last four tracks deliver us from evil. Exciting, strange, necessary.
Automatic For The People: “Monty Got A Raw Deal”
Automatic at its most downtrodden. Less dense and more straightforward than anything else on the record, “Monty Got A Raw Deal” is tired, defeated. Resigned. Just as low as “Drive” but without its intensity, its anguish. “Monty” is a song from someone so beaten down by grief that they’ve given up on feeling anything, anymore. They have emotionally flatlined. Not much can get through, happiness or sadness. Nothing.
And despite that, “Monty” feels like one of Automatic's more accessible songs, and one that I've come back to many times. I could almost see it on Out Of Time if it weren’t so minor-key, so listless. It’s like "Half A World Away" only after the sun goes down and the lights go out, and we’re left alone with our thoughts. There’s a creeping, unusal menace to “Monty.” Its no-frills arrangement lends it a lack of romance, a lack of warmth. It’s effective. It’s chilling.
I have to admit that, lyrically, “Monty” is something of a mystery to me. It’s the only track on Automatic I can’t quite get an angle on. I know that its obvious subject is Hollywood icon Montgomery Clift, but I don’t know a whole lot outside of that. There are definite references to Clift’s personal life (“the movies had that movie thing”.. “don’t you waste your breath / for the silver screen”) but it’s all cloaked, indirect. Like so many R.E.M. songs, I don’t think Stipe had any intentional narrative in mind for “Monty” (and if he did, feel free to message me and let me know what it is, I might just be a dummy). It feels open to interpretation.
We’re at a point in Automatic where we’re lost, saddened, maybe a little bitter. Unsure if things are going to get better, if “Everybody Hurts” and “Sweetness Follows” are going to follow through on their hopeful promise. We don’t know. “Monty Got A Raw Deal” is an accurate expression of this pessimism. Michael is singing a song to a man who had been dead for decades, sympathizing with him, trying to reach him on some other plane. It isn’t working. Montgomery Clift is a man who suffered from drug addiction for years until it finally wore him down. He is already gone, it’s hopeless, and there is nothing Michael can do to help. And it sounds like he knows it.
Even beyond this - it sounds like Stipe is being haunted by Clift’s ghost. “Monty”s lyrics describe a real presence, as if Monty is someone Stipe can actually see. It’s as if Clift’s ghost is walking the earth, lost and forgone, and Stipe is trying to release him, to end his misery. “Just let go.” There’s a connection, a real connection. The lights are dimmed, the candles are lit, and we are seeing the ghost of a broken man drifting through the room. We reach out, but we can’t touch him. He is beyond us.
"Monty“‘s coldness might be the most uncharacteristic moment on the record, but it’s a necessary moment. This is as low as we will go. What a sinking, sad feeling. It’s subtle. For years I thought Peter Buck was playing a mandolin on this song, some kind of weird low-tuned mandolin, but no - he’s playing a bouzouki, a Greek instrument that you might call a kind of bass mandolin. A lower, sadder, stranger mandolin. It’s the primary reason why "Monty" gives you that intangible low feeling, especially compared to the bright happy mandolins on Out Of Time. There’s a weight here that can’t be lifted. There’s something dragging you down.
An ode to a long dead Hollywood star, beyond help. I don’t think Automatic gets any more hopeless than this. This is Automatic's last real moment of despair, and while the rest of the record is warmer and less bleak, this one stays with you. Those low bouzouki strings creep in, shake your blood up. That distant Stipe vocal. Isn't it upsetting, to hear such a hopeful man sound so hopeless?