All those years ago, and it feels like yesterday. Six of us on Udayan's roof, playing cricket and listening to Automatic for the People for the first time on a brilliant sunny afternoon. I'm sure I would have loved R.E.M no matter which setting I first heard them in - that band was drawing me towards itself long before I started listening to decent music. The first R.E.M track I heard was Crush With Eyeliner, sometime in middle school; the next, seven years later, was Losing My Religion. I loved both equally, and it drove me nuts to think that a band could sound so unbelievably different from song to song.
But Automatic was special. For all its images of death and old age and elegies to tragic heroes, there's an uplifting, almost spiritual quality to most of the songs - Everybody Hurts is the radio-friendly example, though Sweetness Follows is ultimately more cathartic. That's not to say that R.E.M is invoking Jesus (they're agnostic - remember Talk about the Passion). What they do here instead is what they have always done in their songs: zero in on specific moments, and then, through straight talk and epigrams, discordant notes and aching melodies, capture them in a snapshot. "Their world has flat backgrounds and little need to sleep but to dream", sings Stipe on The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight, giving a voice to all those who go through life envying cartoon characters. Sweetness Follows, with its powerful waves of feedback sounds exactly like a family mourning its dead, yet trying at the same time to handle the whole affair with dignity.
So I fell in love with the album on that sunny afternoon. I also fell in love with the concept of the memory of specific, memorable sunny afternoons spent with friends, the impact of which you realise years later when the friends are no longer around, but the memories stick around like friendly ghosts. I have since expanded this concept to include other times of the day (mornings, evenings, three in the night), different kinds of weather (windswept but sunny, balmy and buzzing with mosquitos) and new forms of interaction (furtive meetings, heart to hearts).
Its sad, though. After trying to write about one here, and shaking my head at the results, I'd agree with Paul Simon saying "I know they'd never match my sweet imagination...everything looks better in black and white". You just had to be there...