Continuing its admirable retreat from the pop compromises of "Green," the Georgia foursome penetrates further into the rusticated chamber music it developed on last year's "Out of Time." R.E.M.'s eighth album has its relatively rocking moments, but with its acoustic foundation and orchestral strings, it's like an arty version of deep-mountain folk music--lonely and ancient, tapping straight into the mysteries of the human spirit.
Even the high-tech elements have an organic feel--the fuzz and squeals behind the acoustic guitars of "Sweetness Follows" suggest an electric storm seen through bare trees. In these autumnal fields R.E.M. ponders matters of life and death, spews a little vitriol on the Reagan era (it doesn't really help, they admit, but it makes them feel better), considers concepts of illusion and play (citing Montgomery Clift and Andy Kaufman) and transforms nostalgia into something luminously spiritual.
R.E.M. hasn't adopted the manner of its former Athens neighbors the B-52's, but playfulness and humor regularly buoy and brighten the album, from odd song allusions (David Essex's 1973 echo exercise "Rock On," the folkie oldie "The Lion Sleeps Tonight") to Michael Stipe's quirky old-man's voice, which is often as amusing as it is emotionally compelling.
"Out of Time" sounded like a step away from commercialism and ended up a big seller and Grammy winner. "Automatic" might be a more advanced test of buyers' and voters' limits, but its intelligence and subtle passion make it an even more powerful work.
New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).