Following 1988’s Green, the hit major-label debut that spawned the charming top 10 trifle “Stand” and led to an exhausting 11-month world tour, R.E.M. thought about direction in ways it probably hadn’t before.
As singer Michael Stipe told The New York Times, bandmate Peter Buck “didn’t want to look at an electric guitar, much less play one,” and he wasn’t the only one ready to flex his multi-instrumentalist muscles. After 10 years and six albums, the once-underground Georgia foursome had taken its curiously Southern post-punk folk-pop as far it could go. It was time to stretch out, swap instruments (and add a bunch of new ones), and maybe even try a love song or two.
The result was Out of Time, the group’s pivotal seventh LP, released 25 years ago today (March 12, 1991). Stipe has called it a record about “memory and time and love,” and just as those can be elusive, elliptical concepts, the 11-song set doesn’t strictly adhere to any of the group’s usual aesthetics. There are grungy country tunes, giddy pop ditties, and super-sparse ballads about relationships dissolving and fearsome creatures running amok.
While there had been mandolin, accordion and pedal steel on Green, the list of additional musicians Out of Time takes up a big chunk of the CD booklet. (Given the band’s environmentalist bent, one assumes the flugelhorn player carpooled with the violinists and cellists when they cut “Endgame.”)
Of course, the album is best remembered for what Buck has called its most R.E.M.-like song, “Losing My Religion.” The infectious single peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100 — still the band’s highest-ever placement — and helped catapult the album to the top of the Billboard 200. For as huge as R.E.M. got in the ’90s, the group only reached that summit one more time, with 1994’s Monster.
If “Losing My Religion” and the rosy-cheeked follow-up “Shiny Happy People” were the lures that drew newbies in, the other tracks kept them listening and trying to figure out what Stipe was on about. Out of Time isn’t as immediately likable as R.E.M.’s early albums, on which these freaky Athenians seemed to scrawl secret messages on stretched-out rubber bands and let ‘em snap. Here, the songs are more spacious and grand — ready for arenas but still pretty weird.
The fans who cried “sellout” were wrong. With Out of Time, R.E.M. continued going mainstream on its own terms, taking another crucial step in the transition from scruffy left-of-the-dial mainstays to makers of stately, intelligent, deeply moving rock everyone could love. Read on for a track-by-track review.
“Radio Song”: The disc opens with two vastly different songs somehow squeezed into one. There’s a classic R.E.M. heart-tugging sparkler and an organ-driven funk workout — plus flecks of hip-hop, compliments of KRS-One. Stipe gets in the spirit with a wry lyric about the decline of the planet and hollowness of mass media. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and he can’t even find a decent song on the radio.
“Losing My Religion”: Moody, mysterious and rooted in Southern weirdness — the title phrase is regional slang for flipping your wig — the highest-charting song of the group’s career is no pop compromise. With its minor chords, cutting mandolins, and light orchestrations, it’s a spooky ode to obsessive love that’s kept the world humming and guessing for a quarter-century. It doesn’t get much more R.E.M. than that.
“Low”: Not much here but Mills’ organ, Berry’s bongos, Buck’s palm-muted guitar and some strings. “I skipped the part about love,” Stipe sings, though actually, he leaves out a bit more — like the details of whatever went down the night before. He wakes up laughing next to a naked person, enjoying this individual’s touch but very much aware that ups come with downs and all things eventually pass.
“Near Wild Heaven”: Mils’ first-ever lead-vocal performance is a doozy. The band jangles away the pain as the narrator judges the proximity of the “wild heaven” he’s trying to reach. “Not near enough,” Mills sings right before each gorgeous chorus. R.E.M. always did well nodding to The Byrds and The Beach Boys, and here they do both.
“Endgame”: The boys go all Pet Sounds with this lush instrumental, which features sax, flugelhorn, and even melodica. The main melody is strong enough to have supported a solid vocal hook, but coming at roughly the midpoint, it’s nice palette cleanser as is.
“Shiny Happy People”: Naturally, everyone figured this cosmically chipper bop-along was a goof, but Stipe swears he wasn’t being ironic. The tune eventually found its way to Sesame Street, which figures, since Stipe and guest vocalist Kate Pierson of The B-52s go full Muppet with their performance. Everyone does, really — especially Mills, who lays that blissed-out merry-go-round organ over the waltzing intro and bridge part. Listeners are forgiven for skipping over it, though. This serotonin bomb is best detonated about once a decade.
“Belong”: Big harmonies and shimmering guitars turn Stipe’s spoken-word tale about a woman, her child and apocalyptic events real or metaphorical into a song of resilience. “Belong,” the woman advises, apparently imagining a world that exists after the barricade-hopping “creatures” in the first and last verses have wrought their havoc. The excitement in the band’s performance is telling: R.E.M. is thrilled by the idea of ripping everything up and starting again.
“Half a World Away”: A kind of mirror image of “Low,” which also references dusk in the opening lines, this chamber-pop dispatch from a distant lover seems to be about clinging to something that’s just not working. Mills’ harpsichord adds elegance and dignity to what is probably a messy situation.
“Texarkana”: Alas, Mills’ second stab at being frontman isn’t as successful as the first. He’s not distinctive enough a singer to suck you in with the pained vagaries of the lyrics, as Stipe might have, and despite the contrast of rising strings and pouting pedal steel in the chorus, the hook doesn’t quite connect.
“Country Feedback”: Making better use of the pedal steel than the previous track, this stark country dirge about a troubled relationship — maybe the band’s, maybe Kurt and Courtney’s, as Ms. Love has claimed — hinges on the line, “It’s crazy what you could’ve had.” That’s what echoes in the narrator’s head as he walks on down the trail, ears ringing with feedback.
“Me in Honey”: Pierson returns for a less shiny, less happy song about a man reacting to pregnancy. “I sat there looking ugly, looking ugly and mean,” Stipe sings. If his goal was to convey the apprehension and joy of impending fatherhood, he got the right guitar riff from Buck. “Honey” chugs along without much variation, suggesting the narrator is trapped in a cycle of emotions he’s still figuring out.