R.E.M.'s new 'Automatic' reflects the group's growth in musical, personal ways

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If it's true that time flies when you're having fun, life must be a blast for R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck.

"This English journalist came in town for this record, and he had come here once before," he says, over the phone from the band's offices in Athens, Ga. "So I introduced him to my wife, saying, 'You've met my wife.' And he said, 'You weren't married when I came here.'

" 'I wasn't married when you came here? When did you come here?'

" '1985.'

"That was seven years ago!" laughs Buck. "I thought he'd been there just a year before. It was like 'Oh, no! I've lost seven years.' "

Lost? Not quite. In fact, since 1985, what R.E.M. has been doing falls mostly under the category of gains -- enlarging its fan base, increasing its album sales, and acquiring an unexpected amount of industry clout, among other things. Yet even though the group is about to release its 10th album, "Automatic for the People" (see accompanying review), Buck still finds it difficult to believe that a dozen years have passed since he, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Bill Berry first teamed as R.E.M.

"I mean, we've lasted longer than the Beatles -- no comparison intended," he says, seemingly incredulous. "They changed the face of modern music, and our career's already two years longer than theirs."

Does that make him feel old? In a way, it does. "You always think of [the Beatles] as these wise old men, because they're older than us," he explains. "But George Harrison was, like, 27 when they broke up, and none of them were 30. It's amazing how much they accomplished at such a young age."

Still, experience has its advantages. "It's all well and good to talk a great game on your first record, but eventually you're not going to be 21 anymore," he says. "You're going to be 34. And you do it for different reasons when you get a little older.

"But that's fine," he adds. "I don't want to do an album for the same reason I did when I was 24. Twenty-four is 24, and I'll never see that again."

More to the point, it's doubtful that the R.E.M. of 10 years ago would have made a record like this new one. Dark, reflective and unexpectedly intimate, "Automatic for the People" reflects R.E.M.'s musical and personal maturity. There's nothing shiny or happy about these songs; this time around, the emotions evoked by the music tend more toward anxiety, empathy, loss. And though the album is by no means a total downer, the musical perspective rarely gets much brighter than bemusement.

"It is more introspective, but not 'I lost my girlfriend' introspective," acknowledges Buck. "There are two or three songs that are kind of concerned with mortality."

Why? Call it the tenor of the times. "We look around and see acquaintances with AIDS, friends with AIDS," he says. "And since Vietnam, there hasn't been something like that that's decimated a generation.

"I'm not saying specifically that those songs are about that," he adds. "But it's going to cross your mind."

R.E.M. hadn't really planned on an introspective album, by the way. Indeed, devoted fans may recall the band promising after its last album, the relatively quiet "Out of Time," that the next one would be loud, raucous and rockin'.

R.E.M. hadn't really planned on an introspective album, by th way. Indeed, devoted fans may recall the band promising after its last album, the relatively quiet "Out of Time," that the next one would be loud, raucous and rockin'.

So what happened?

"We make these plans, and we can never follow up," shrugs Buck. "See, with this record, the plan was that we were going to write these songs, rehearse them like we were going to play them, and cut it live, pretty much, in the studio. Of course, we had 29 or 30 ideas that we're working on, and they were all kind of like this. So it went right out the window."

Part of the reason the band's writing process is so unpredictable is that it's totally collaborative. "Michael usually puts lyrics to the music we've given him," Buck says. "Sometimes he'll write about something to suit the songs, and sometimes he'll purposely undercut it."

Occasionally, though, Stipe will write words that end up taking the music in another direction entirely, as with "Try Not to Breathe," from the new album.

"When we first recorded the demo, it had that jolly, fake-Irish 6/4 time thing," says Buck. "We could have done it with jingling mandolins and a little fiddle and it would have been some kind of drinking song.

"Then, when we heard lyrics, it was kind of like, 'Oh yeah. These take it to a whole different place.'

"That's the interplay," he says, summing up. "The lyrics reflect what's in the music, and then we reflect it back. So the music encompasses [the song's meaning] as much as the lyrics."

R.E.M.'s ability to translate individual ideas into a group approach is also reflected in its eclectic approach to pop music. "Out of Time," for example, drew on everything from hip-hop to power pop to old-timey string band music, and "Automatic for the People" is equally wide-ranging. Yet no matter how far afield the band's influences might wander, somehow R.E.M. always manages to retain its own idiosyncratic sound.

"We're arrogant enough to think that we can assimilate virtually any type of music," Buck says. "Michael's really into the dance/hip-hop thing. He knows all those records. So maybe that shows up a little bit in 'Radio Song.' We're certainly not like this cutting-edge dance band or anything. But it's there, and eventually some of it will come out.

"There's a million things we haven't tried," Buck continues. "Lately we've been interested in working with string sections. . . ."

Unfortunately, as fulfilling as it might be to make records full of moody, mournful string-section songs, the guys in R.E.M. realize that taking such material on tour is another matter entirely. "I can see booking a whole summer tour of the sheds, going out to 18,000 or 20,000 kids and then playing all these death songs," laughs Buck. "Slow songs with cello players -- it's not going to be your get-down, party venture."

Consequently, R.E.M. has no plans for an "Automatic" road show. That's not to say Buck or his bandmates are staying home for good, mind. Indeed, the guitarist already seems to miss the concert circuit.

"Given that there are days when I really would rather be almost anywhere else than in Cleveland at three in the morning, I loved every minute of it," he says. "We did it as well as anyone could do it. We learned a lot, we grew as a band, and as songwriters. We took it to a different level with each tour, and approached it really well. And we did the big-hall tour as well as anyone has ever done it, as far as I'm concerned.

"But we did that, you know?" he adds. "There's not a whole lot left right now for us to get out of it. We're songwriters and we make records, and that's what we're going to concentrate on."

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