In R.E.M.’s hometown of Athens, Ga., there’s a soul food diner called Weaver D’s where every customer’s order is met with a hearty “Automatic!” Hence the title of their eighth album, which arrives just eight months after the upbeat Out of Time won three Grammys. But titles can deceive, and fans of perky Time tunes like “Shiny Happy People” will be surprised by Automatic, a dark harkening back to mid-’80s R.E.M., when the brooding heroes of college radio cranked out stark underground hits like “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” and “Driver 8.”
The mostly acoustic record is filled with dark, intimate songs. Baleful mandolins shiver across lush string arrangements by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and cello work by Knox Chandler of Psychedelic Furs. Confronting mortality is the pervasive theme. In “Everybody Hurts,” vocalist Michael Stipe succeeds at talking a friend out of suicide; “Try Not to Breathe” relates the fear of being forgotten by loved ones after one’s death; only the title of “Sweetness Follows” suggests renewal following the grief of a death in the family.
Stipe’s raw, haunting voice and the band’s signature sound, a kind of new Southern gothic rock, possess an insistent energy that lifts the album out of despair. Recorded in Athens, Atlanta, New Orleans, Woodstock, N., Miami and Seattle, Automatic suggests a series of late-night confessional phone calls made to the listener by a lonely friend out on the road. With this strong, cerebral and deeply personal album, R.E.M. returns to the somber strengths that made them the new pooh-bahs of American alternative rock. (Warner Bros.)