I’m glad that MTV’s Unplugged shows are gradually becoming more and more available on vinyl. Only the other day I picked up a bootleg of Stone Temple Pilots’ fantastic Unplugged set from 1993. Of course, the really famous ones are Eric Clapton’s Grammy award winning record from 1992, and Nirvana’s swansong show in 1993, also a Grammy winner. Now if they would just release Aerosmith’s 1990 show, I’d be very happy.
As cynical as you want to be about the whole Unplugged thing – a soul-less cash-in by a corporate TV station only interested in producing programming content – it’s become a nice little time capsule of early ‘90s rock and alternative rock. Of course the show is still going to this day, but the last one recorded was by Miley Cyrus in 2014 which shows just how much it’s devolved over time. It’s just a ratings chaser and always has been. In the early ‘90s, it was Nirvana fans and Pearl Jam fans who were propping up the album charts, these days it’s tweens propping up the download charts.
R.E.M.’s first Unplugged set (they recorded another one in 2001) is dated between 1991’s Out Of Time and 1992’s Automatic For The People – effectively smack bang in the peak of their career. They take the time to go as far back as their debut record Murmur( for Perfect Circle), and of their studio albums only Reckoning and Fables Of The Reconstruction are passed over. The set does lean a little more towards the later albums – Green and Out Of Time – which is understandable considering how the music videos from those albums had opened the door to the wave of Alternative Rock which would fill the station for the first half of the 1990s.
The sound on this record is superb, and my only gripe is that the guitars all sound a little too clear and bright. That’s R.E.M. all over though – jangly ‘80s pop guitars rather than an authentic dusty blues guitar vibe.
This was one of the first CDs I ever bought. In fact, it might have been only the second or third such purchase. As soon as I started listening to music obsessively, I joined one of those music mail-order clubs, where you choose a stack of CDs for a really low price, and then they try and send you the latest new release every month. Automatic For The People was in that first stack of CDs I bought from them. I thought then, as I do now, that it’s a perfect album. There’s nothing about it that I dislike, and it’s remained a firm favourite ever since.
R.E.M. fans will have you believe that their earlier albums are where it’s at, but for me, everything they ever did in their formative years leads to this album, and everything they did afterwards was just a steady downhill decline. If somebody was foolish enough to say that Murmur or Reckoning was a better album than this, I’d just laugh in their stupid face. There’s a horrible trend for musos to instantly dislike an album as soon as it’s crossed over into the mainstream and achieved a certain level of acclaim. I’m probably guilty of having done this from time to time. To dismiss this album in that fashion though would be a real mistake for anybody to make.
I’ve listened to this album on a couple of road trips, and it seems to attain something different when you listen to it while travelling. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I think the mood of the album seems to make more sense. R.E.M. are a very American band – they deal in Americana – sometimes to the detriment to their reputation outside their native country, to people who might not necessarily always ‘get’ them; but I think the universal themes of the album – loss, regret and longing – seem to connect better somehow on the road.