When an independent artist signs onto a major label, it’s inevitable that the change won’t please everyone. There are sure to be dissenting fans who have claimed ownership over the artist and decry them as a “sellout,” a “traitor,” a “Judas.”
By 1991, when R.E.M. released Out of Time – the follow-up to their 1988 Warner Bros. debut Green – much of the indie rock intelligentsia of the band’s native Athens, GA, had long since disowned them. Having birthed one of the most vital underground rock groups of the 1980s, they disdained the band’s gradual mainstream ascent following the success of minor hits like “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” “The One I Love,” and “Stand.”
But as any sensible music lover knows, mainstream popularity needn’t always signify sacrifice of quality. This is especially true for R.E.M. – a band that, no matter how big they became, never strayed from their musical vision, but instead continually found new, exciting ways of packaging it. Personally, I never hesitate to name R.E.M. as my favorite musical group, and it’s in no small part because of that artistic integrity. They shared a single-minded determination to make great music, and their love and passion for their craft shine through in every song.
When work on Out of Time began, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry were all in their early-to-mid-thirties. In other words, they were no longer the scrappy, enigmatic young quartet that released the 1983 landmark LP Murmur. They had experienced life, with all its profound joys and crushing defeats. As their slow crawl towards middle age continued, they may have found it hard to shake the suspicion that they were running, well, out of time. The scrappy jangle pop of their previous work wasn’t the right avenue with which to express the way they now saw the world. As they grew more and more popular, their sound would grow more expansive and polished – but by no means less remarkable and beautiful.
Just take a look at the record’s cover: the band’s name embedded in what almost looks like a corporate logo, superimposed over a sepia-toned sea. Compare that to the dense, imposing bramble sprawling across the front of Murmur, and you know you’re in for a very different experience with Out of Time.
Opener “Radio Song” wraps its examination of pop music’s empty yet seductive appeal inside (what else?) a goofy, catchy pop song. It also serves as a perfect introduction to the group’s expansive, fearless new sound: Swelling strings! A horn section! A wacky organ loop! A wobbly, almost Prince-like guitar riff! And to top it all off, a rambunctious supporting performance from none other than Boogie Down Productions’ own KRS-One, whose loony ad-libs (“Baby, baby, baby, BABY!”) punctuate the track’s tongue-in-cheek aesthetic.
Appropriately, much of the record deals with the inexorable march of time and the regrets that pile up in its wake. The scorching “Country Feedback” is one of the most devastating breakup songs ever written. Stipe grimly intones a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy through a fog of guitar whine and moaning pedal steel, his improvised lyrics creating something truly raw and primal, an exposed nerve.
With “Feedback” and the brooding, hypnotic minimalism of “Low,” R.E.M. prove themselves masters of the slow burn. Both songs possess such an aching deliberateness that, as you listen, you become very aware of time’s passage. You feel the seconds creep by as the music transfixes you, from quiet opening to cathartic crescendo. “Dusk is dawn, is day,” Stipe flatly observes, “where did it go?” Where, indeed.
Another notable development on Time: the prominence of Mills. Having already proven himself a virtuosic and underrated bassist, Mills steps to the forefront, singing lead on strained-relationship anthem “Near Wild Heaven” and the doleful, heartbreaking melodrama of “Texarkana.” His unadorned vocals form a perfect counterpoint to Stipe’s impassioned wail.
But just because the album deals with such heavy subject matter doesn’t mean there isn’t time for moments of levity. “Shiny Happy People” and the aforementioned “Radio Song” prove as entertaining as they are incisive. “Shiny” turned plenty of folks off – and still does – with its intentionally dippy lyrics (“Meet me in the crowd / People, people / Throw your love around / Love me, love me / Take it into town,” etc.) and general plasticky atmosphere. But could it actually be a pointed, deeply ironic critique of pop’s vapidity? Or, as some have suggested, a chilling indictment of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989? Or is it just a genuinely happy, buoyant pop tune? No matter how you approach it, it works perfectly. And the inimitable yelp of Kate Pierson (of fellow Athenian weirdos the B-52’s) just makes it all the more odd and endearing.
Out of Time packs more melancholy beauty into 44 minutes than most musicians achieve in their entire careers. The rapturous melodies worm their way into your subconscious until you can feel them in your soul. Scott Litt’s masterful production highlights the musicianship of all parties involved; as a result, the whole record soars even in its darkest moments. Buck delivers some of his most subtle yet emphatic guitar work on “Heaven” and “Texarkana.” Stipe’s voice endures eternally as one of popular music’s greatest vehicles of shivering pathos and queer longing. And the pastoral instrumental “Endgame” is one of the most intoxicatingly gorgeous songs R.E.M. – or any other artist – has ever recorded. It’s altogether a true high-water mark of the early ‘90s.
“Losing My Religion,” of course, remains R.E.M.’s most massive hit, not to mention much of the world’s only reference point for the group. Still, if you’re going to be remembered for a single piece of work, you could do a lot worse. “Religion” spins a classic tale of Hitchcockian obsession – of wanting someone so badly that you sacrifice your sense of self. The funereal string section and Buck’s somber mandolin mourn the loss of the narrator’s sanity, his ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. “That was just a dream, just a dream, just a dream.” Or was it?
Closing track “Me in Honey” drives the whole thing back home with its bittersweet saga of unexpected pregnancy. (Stipe intended the tune as a response to “Eat for Two” by 10,000 Maniacs, whose lead singer Natalie Merchant he had briefly dated.) “Knocked silly, knocked flat, sideways, down,” Stipe’s befuddled father-to-be croons over Buck’s steady-rolling guitar and Berry’s drum thwacks. “These things they pick you up and they turn you around.”
Ultimately, that’s the uniting message behind Out of Time. Love and life are hard. They beat us up and knock us down; they stretch us to our breaking points; they promise us everything and leave us with nothing, humiliated and broken, wondering why we bothered to try. We might feel as wayward and forlorn as the world-weary narrator of “Half a World Away,” or as uncertain of the future as the doting mother in “Belong.” And yet, at the end of the day, we’ve survived. We’re still alive, and the song within our hearts is still ringing out, even if we can’t hear it play. There is beauty to be found in the decline – you need only take the time to find and savor it.