It’s obvious that I’m a completist, and if you’re a completist too then your collection won’t be complete without this “Collector’s Edition CD” of the lead single from R.E.M.’s twenty year-old album “Automatic For The People.” There are good reasons why you need this CD to complete your collection, even though the lead track is the lead track on the album and the three B-sides are all more readably available on the box set “The Automatic Box.” Here’s what you’ll miss without this very important release:
1. “Drive” without the “one, two, three, four” count-in, thus saving you five seconds every time you listen to “Drive”! By the end of your life you might save thirty whole seconds!
2. A CD that says “Collector’s Edition CD” on the front!
3. Pictures of the non-Stipe band members posing model-like on beaches at night.
4. A hilarious band photo where the non-Stipe members wear all black to look various degrees of artsy, but Michael wears laughably oversized sweatpants, hoodie, loafers, and trucker cap, like a bizarre and wonderful cross between Eminem and an old Chinese man.
Pretty important! “Drive” itself is a curious choice for lead single. It’s a good song, natch, but by no means the most accessible or best the album has to offer. The album sold something like fifteen million copies so it must have been a decent marketing choice, but it wasn’t a big hit of a lead single like “Losing My Religion” was, and that’s understandable since it’s a plodding, mostly acoustic dirge about who knows what. I’ll always love the line “maybe I drive to get off,” and hate the part where Stipe fills an entire verse with “ollie, ollie, ollie ollie ollie,” but it’s more notable to my brain as a song where I love the build-up and build-down but dislike the peak where the electric guitar and strings come in. Luckily, 3/4 of the song is said ascendancy and descendancy,
The three B-sides are available in identical form on other releases, so briefly: this is the most effort R.E.M. would ever put into the flip side of a single – you get the annoying but catchy oddball “It’s A Free World, Baby” that makes the total “baby” quotient of the single far too high, the first in R.E.M.’s to-be-longstanding series of clever instrumentals that serve as unreleased tracks. This one, “Winged Mammal Theme,” while its title provokes more mirth in me than the song itself, was used as Weather Channel music.
The last B-side, deserving of a paragraph break, is my favourite cover of Lenny Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan,” far the fuck superior to the original, with Stipe and bassist Mills singing off each other like motherfuckers and presenting the song as the moderate rock song it was always meant to be. Who knows why this isn’t still know as the standard version of this song instead of the awful 80s-synth original, because this one’s masterful.
So, Drive. A bit of a departure from the death-obsessed album to come, but a perfectly very good song on its own merits, and a completely unnecessary but concrete single. I give it an eight!