After the introduction of so many slower songs in Green, and the mostly becalmed, acoustic, mandolined Out of Time some observers were expecting R.E.M. to follow-up by turning again, and heading back into rock territory. What they instead delivered, nearly eighteen months after Out of Time, was an album written and recorded with the luxury of time and space in which to work, and which is, if anything, even more low-key than the two it followed.
It's an album of loss and looking back; it's themes are almost universally centered around sadness. But it's not at all a depressing album to listen to, such is the quality of Michael Stipe's lyrics, and the beauty of the music that wraps round them. It's not perfect, in fact the more the tempo increases the more it starts to flag: "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" might not grate like "Shiny Happy People", but it doesn't quite match the carefree silliness of its partner songs from Green either, while "Ignoreland" brings the album's fury but not much else. Almost everything that works about the album happens slowly, but with purpose, from the tenderness of "Sweetness Follows", to the simplicity and honesty of "Everybody Hurts". "Try Not To Breathe" allows itself to build serenely until the call and response, the harmonies, the backing vocals, all work together to bring the track to a perfect close. Of the up-tempo numbers (pardon my modern phrasing), only "Man on the Moon" stands out, and not just because of Stipe's Elvis impersonations. Again, worth pointing out that the song is elevated by Mike Mills' backing vocals.
After "Man on the Moon", two closing ballads seal the deal: first "Nightswimming", with its repeating piano refrain and beautiful and restrained string arrangement (one of many on the album provided by Led Zepellin bassist John Paul Jones), and then "Find The River", with both Mills and Berry providing contrasting harmonies, both recorded in isolation without knowing what each other was going to come up with. It works, like so much of Automatic For The People because all the pieces somehow just fit. Back at Fables of the Reconstruction it felt sometimes like all the members of the band were competing for song space, but since then they'd stopped crowding each other, giving room where it was needed (often on Automatic For The People one of the band members doesn't appear at all in a song) and allowing the spaces to appear; only then could those spaces be filled again in the exact, perfect way that was required.
It was difficult to see how R.E.M. could top Automatic For The People, or where their muse would take them next.