April 6, 2007
Automatic For The People is commonly labeled as R.E.M.’s “album about death,” but it’s more accurate to say that it is a set of songs primarily concerned with being alive with the awareness of mortality. The tragedy of “Sweetness Follows” isn’t the death of its characters’ parents but rather the way petty grudges and self-absorption have either damaged or completely severed the connections of the surviving family members. The singer laments this condition and clearly wants to make things right, but he also seems resigned to the stubborn will of his siblings.
The lyrical drama plays itself out in the instrumental arrangement. The stiff rhythm of the acoustic guitar seems cold, stoic, and removed from the other elements of the piece — “distanced from one, deaf to the other,” in other words. Meanwhile, a somber cello moan, a funereal organ drone, and distant electric guitar feedback stand in for different stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief.
The guitar feedback is the most emotive element in the song. The part threatens to break out into a solo during the bridge, but it chokes on its own emotion like a person fighting to hold back their tears. Peter Buck’s performance is subtle but exceptionally moving, and lends a gentle complexity to a song that might be nothing more than a cloying tear-jerker in less capable hands.