For years, my favorite form of nostalgia was 80s nostalgia. This has always made sense to me because I grew up in the 80s, went to high school in the 80s and pretty much lapped up everything the pop culture that surrounded me had to offer. As the 80s morphed into the 90s and grunge took over, I felt more and more lost on the pop cultural landscape. The pop music that provided so much of the background music of my teenage years was drowned out by stuff that I just couldn’t assimilate into my tastes or listening habits.
So it came as quite a surprise to me when recently I came down with a serious case of 90s nostalgia. However , it shouldn’t really surprise me that much because as much as our teenage years are formative, I really think that our college years provide most of the direction that we take as young adults. And while I think what catalyzed my 90s nostalgia was the recent recommendation of Everything But The Girl’s Amplified Heart (an album I swear I had not heard until I ordered it for dirt cheap off Amazon Sellers after the recommendation was made), what set it into high gear was my serendipitous rediscovery of R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People.
I have never been what I would classify as an R.E.M. fan, but Automatic For The People is an undisputed masterpiece and probably in my top 10 favorite albums. It came out in the autumn of 1992, which musically was one of the most important and vivid times of my life, although the release of a new R.E.M. record did not even make a blip on my radar at that point in time. Prior to this release, I had always chalked up Michael Stipe as a big whiner, a precursor to the emo boys that seem to emerge and disappear on a daily basis now. I remember my brother singing a parody of “Losing My Religion” – something like “that’s me in the spotlight / human life is worthless.” So I always kind of avoided R.E.M.
A friend of mine in college was a huge R.E.M. fan. We met because he was living with a friend of mine from my hometown and she introduced us because we were both in pharmacy school and would be in a lot of the same classes. I remember saying to Sam (name changed) when I first found out that he liked R.E.M. that he was the type of person that I would expect to like R.E.M. Yeah, I was kind of a dick sometimes, but it was true. Despite my initial insensitivity, we became quite good friends. And he was pretty much the one that introduced me to Automatic For The People, although at first, it was mostly by osmosis. He would play it in the car when we went places or if he was driving me back to the dorms (since I was without vehicle) or whatever and I would listen to it and for the first time, I decided that Michael Stipe might actually have something to say that I could relate to.
I can’t listen to Automatic For The People and not be reminded of Sam and those years I spent in pharmacy school. The singles stand out for me so strongly. They are also the ones that many would complain have worn out their welcome due to overplay or overexposure. It pisses me off when someone says “oh, that can’t be art, it’s too popular.” That is bullshit because just because something is popular does not mean that it can’t be brilliant. Songs like “Man on the Moon” and “Everybody Hurts” (I always wanted that hat Stipe wore in the video) still ring as true today as they did back then. And even something as completely unintelligible as “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” has aged gracefully and is still highly listenable.
It’s not surprising that what I love most about Automatic for the People is its huge thread of melancholy that runs through the majority of the album. One thing about music and me – I can use it to modulate my moods quite effectively. And if, for whatever reason, I am in the mood for introspection, I know just where to go. Usually it’s Mary Chapin Carpenter, but this R.E.M. album is exceptional for that as well. One need look no further than songs like “Try Not To Breathe”and “Sweetness Follows” to find songs that make you look inward and turn down the noise in the world around us. Both deal with the end of life, the former taking the run-up to death, the latter with the reactions afterward (“oh, oh, but sweetness follows.”)
And then there’s “Nightswimming” which is probably my favorite of all of R.E.M.’s songs, even though that’s a bit of a cliche since it seems like it is so many people’s favorite R.E.M. song. I did not know that it was a single until just recently, and that there was a video for it as well.
Stipe’s cracking voice over mournful piano and strings is an odd companion to 10,000 Maniacs’ “These Are Days” and honestly, I prefer Stipe’s take on remembering what many refer to as “the good old days.” (and not just because so many of my college friends became self-described 10,000 Maniacs “fans” based on their fondness for that one song.) “Nightswimming” paints a vivid picture of youth and a time before life’s responsibilities overtook us. I can literally listen to this song on a loop over and over again. It’s like looking at a watercolor painting and seeing something new in it every time and watching what you saw the last time disappear into the whole. In short, it’s a masterpiece and one of my all time favorite songs. The sad thing is, though, that I frequently forget about it, but rediscovering it is like finding an old friend.
I always wanted to have a better friendship with Sam than I think I ever had. Ultimately, the competition that frames so many male friendships proved too hard to avoid. We were, as I said previously, in all the same classes so the temptation to compete on tests and for the attention of women was hard to avoid. My then-undiagnosed depression didn’t help me on any level so I’m sure that I was a very high-maintenance friend from time to time. But there are a lot of good memories in there – staying up all night playing the original version of Sid Meier’s Civilization, running to Taco Bell at 11:30 at night, Cricket hair, and nights of playing hide and seek with our friend Ellen at the Bowen Science Building when taking breaks from studying.
Still, it’s hard to listen to Automatic For The People and not have a little bit of bittersweetness follow. But it’s the kind of bittersweet I can deal with and actually kind of like.