Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
With Out of Time, R.E.M. completed their transition from college band to global stardom, and they wanted their next album to move away from Time‘s gentle lushness and move into harder-rocking territory, more suited to the grunge-y times. But when the band members reconvened, they found they were no longer of a mind to write loud ‘n’ angry. Result: Automatic for the People, a meditation on loss that’s downbeat without being depressing, from a band turning away from a world begging to be conquered so it could consider its disquiet. The record wasn’t what they originally promised, but it didn’t disappoint either – it went top-five worldwide, and today it’s considered the band’s masterpiece, the kind of album you put on and then you just lie down and you let it engulf you (or so it is said).
“Every one of its 12 songs is worthy of attention,” MOJO said, and in 2007 the website Stereogum proved it with their tribute album Drive XV: A Tribute to Automatic for the People. A celebration of Automatic‘s 15th anniversary, the tribute featured artists who grew up with R.E.M. as a constant in their lives, and hearing that familiar band speaking with a new voice clearly made an impression on these musicians who were still discovering their own voices and the ways they could be raised.
Stereogum chose well when deciding who would appear on the tribute; the bands were clearly appreciative of what Messrs. Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe had done a decade and a half before, on both a musical and a personal level, and they had the goods to get that appreciation across. Some examples follow. (These links will take you to the song’s lyrics and liner notes on the Stereogum page; links to MP3s appear at the bottom of this essay.)
Rogue Wave – The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight (R.E.M. cover)
“I’m not so crazy about ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,'” Peter Buck admitted, later explaining that compared to the rest of the record, it “might be a little too lightweight.” One would imagine he’d be grateful for what Rogue Wave do to the song, cooling it down and making it sound like it’s slipping from one shadow to the next.
The Forms – Ignoreland (R.E.M. cover)
“Ignoreland,” the political polemic half-buried on side two, was as close to hard-rocking as Automatic got. “It’s good to vent about the people we were angry with at the time,” Mike Mills said, a perhaps inadvertent echo of the lyric Michael Stipe sang, “I feel better having screamed.” The Forms tap into the song’s anger by paring it down to bass and drums, showcasing a rage that’s supple and bone deep at the same time.
Blitzen Trapper – Star Me Kitten (R.E.M. cover)
Blitzen Trapper have a slightly more dissonant take on “Star Me Kitten” than R.E.M. did, but even the increase in volume and the somewhat jarring instrumentation don’t deprive the song of its quiet core. The titular wish (cleaned up for the kiddies, not to mention to avoid an explicit-lyric warning sticker) still sounds soft and tender.
Shout Out Louds – Man on the Moon (R.E.M. cover)
“Man on the Moon,” R.E.M.’s tribute to the late (?) Andy Kaufman, quickly became one of the band’s best-loved songs; by the time the Kaufman biopic starring Jim Carrey came out, seven years later, it was a valid question whether it would have existed without the song raising awareness and clearing a cultural path for it. The version by Shout Out Louds taps into the complicated magic Kaufman and R.E.M. both provided, right down to their prominent and perfect use of bongo drums.
Amanda Palmer & Cormac Bride – Everybody Hurts (R.E.M. cover)
Stereogum’s tribute featured ten bonus cuts, other artists playing Automatic for the People covers that were too good not to share. Four of those ten covers were versions of “Everybody Hurts.” It might be R.E.M.’s greatest song, with Michael Stipe, lifetimes beyond the mumbled poetry of Murmur, delivering his advice directly through the listeners’ defenses and deep into their psyches. Peter Buck revealed that “the reason the lyrics are so atypically straightforward is because it was aimed at teenagers,” an audience Amanda Palmer certainly cultivates and understands. Her cover, done with the assistance of Cormac Bride, is one a young, self-identified misfit can be encouraged to drink deeply.