Automatic for the People (Warner Bros.)

By Bob Bahr

R.E.M. albums are notorious for playing hard to get. It takes what seems like forever for one to open up and surrender its pleasures. But after more than a dozen listenings over the course of two weeks, Automatic for the Peoplestill fails to titillate this reviewer.

Long-time R.E.M. fans have faced a quandry with these last three albums. Dis them, and get accused of snobbery. Yes, the complaint that R.E.M. has "gone commercial" may be a bit off the mark. What we've seen is "commercial" music catching up with alternative music, more than witnessing the Athens quartet sell out. But the truth is, R.E.M. has yet to match the brilliance of Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction,and Murmur. And with Automatic for the People, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry have never been farther from their past greatness.

There's no meat, musically, on this new platter. The chord progressions are painfully simple, the sound is heavily dependent on texture and hypnotic repetition. Guitarist Buck has gone sparse, largely abandoning his intricate, Byrd-like figures. Keyboards loom large on this disc, from a fat layer of Hammond B-3 shimmer to bold piano playing. Vocal harmonies also thicken the mix, most noticeably on "Star Me Kitten." Drummer Berry and bassist Mills are criminally under-utilized.

The lyrics...well, Stipe admits (on "Monty Got a Raw Deal") that "Nonsense isn't new to me." Indeed, Stipe has always used his voice as more of an instrument than a means of communication. And while he has contributed some of the most intriguing verbal phrases in rock, it really is best for everyone when his vocals are mixed way down.

"Losing My Religion" from last year's Out of Timeseemed to signal a new direction for R.E.M. -- a literate, thoughtful, beautiful direction. Where is that brave new world on Automatic for the People? Instead, we get "Drive," the terrifically sappy "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" (in which Stipe's vocal stretches make you cringe), and a weak Fifties-style ballad called "Everybody Hurts."

I don't know whether to laugh or cry over the involvement of ex-Led Zep member John Paul Jones. His string arrangements are professional -- and understandably reek of '70s progressive rock. There's every indication that R.E.M. has overstated the gravity of the situation, turning this album into a black hole that merely sucks up listener expectations, then destroys them.