R.E.M.: Out of Time: 25th Anniversary Edition

R.E.M.: Out of Time: 25th Anniversary Edition

Certainly one of the stranger R.E.M. albums.

R.E.M.: Out of Time: 25th Anniversary Edition

3.25 / 5

Out of Time is the album that made R.E.M. into superstars, won them a Grammy and fully cemented them in the consciousness of mainstream American pop culture, yet it rarely comes up when discussing the band’s finest work. It’s certainly one of the stranger R.E.M. albums, a rare instance of the band taking aesthetic risks after playing it relatively safe for the preceding six albums. It has their biggest hit (“Losing My Religion”) and the most infamously awful songwriting crime they ever committed (“Shiny Happy People”). Yet, it seems unlikely that even most die-hard fans were ready to re-examine this record on its 25th anniversary. Hearing it again in this lovingly remastered set, though, one can find some new things to enjoy about this black sheep in R.E.M.’s discography.

When it came out, Out of Time wasn’t exactly a left-field shift from the band; they had been hinting at moving towards a pastoral pop sound on Green with songs like “Hairshirt” and “You Are The Everything.” But Green was decidedly the work of a rock band, and Out of Time is anything but that. It was as if they were using the freedom afforded them by success to do whatever they felt like. There are stabs at bubblegum (“Near Wild Heaven”), morose alt-country (“Country Feedback”) and, regrettably, hip-hop (“Radio Song,” featuring an embarrassing guest verse from KRS-One). If one can levy a real complaint with Out of Time, it’s that these pieces don’t really fit together. The loose approach the band took towards writing the songs for Out of Time ends up undercutting any thematic bent the album could have musically; only Michael Stipe’s intentionally vague lamentations and melancholy hold things together.

Despite this, Out of Time proves to be slightly underrated upon revisiting. For all of its lack of cohesion, the band was writing some excellent material at this point. Mike Mills proves himself to be a capable lead vocalist on “Near Wild Heaven” and the melodramatic “Texarkana,” and languid experiments like “Belong” and “Endgame” prove to be more charming than grating. Furthermore, the remaster only emphasizes just how amazing this record sounds. For a band that seemed to rise up in a murky fog, it’s shocking how crisp and clear every instrument and every word from Stipe’s mouth sounds. It’s glossy without being showy, produced without being overproduced. Given that this was 1991, that’s an anomaly in itself, but that sparkle hasn’t dissipated in the quarter-century since.

As for the rarities, this Out of Time reissue offers little in unheard songs largely because R.E.M. weren’t that kind of band. Any long-lost track already came out a few years ago on the big Warner Bros. B-side collection. What these demos and outtakes do offer is an interesting look at R.E.M.’s songwriting process. Basically, the three instrumentalists (Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry) would demo and occasionally write out full songs in the studio on their own, presenting the finished product to Stipe so that he could write lyrics to the recording. The band have spelled this out in interviews for years, but it’s another thing entirely to hear the process worked out in almost real time. Sometimes, things fit together perfectly, as when Stipe fits in seamlessly on “Losing My Religion.” Other times, one gets the impression that things could have gone better, as when the relatively sweet “Shiny Happy People” gets undone by Stipe’s bone-stupid lyrics. Still, for those die-hards yearning for a bit of insight into how R.E.M. did their thing, this re-release of Out of Time is immensely valuable.

What’s perhaps most clear upon revisiting Out of Time is that it may be the weirdest hit album ever to exist. Its arrangements are decidedly anachronistic, relying heavily on instruments unfamiliar to alternative rock fans at the time. Out of Time is both sugary sweet and morose. By all rights, the album should have flopped; that it didn’t is a testament to just how good R.E.M. were at what they did.

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