Saturday, 13 March 2021

REM's Out of Time turns 30

In another reminder of the relentless onward march of linear time, the REM album Out of Time has somehow turned thirty years old, sparking lots of nostalgic reminiscence.

The lengthy thinkpieces and flashbacks to the album are perhaps surprising: Out of Time is neither REM's best album, nor their most successful, nor their most critically acclaimed. It is, however, often cited as Ground Zero for REM's ascent into absolute mega-stardom and features arguably their two best-known singles (one a candidate for their best, one a candidate for their most whimsical).

REM was founded in Athens, Georgia in 1980 and comprised vocalist Michael Stipe, bassist Mike Mills, guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Bill Berry. Between 1983 and 1988 they released six albums, almost all critically acclaimed and each being rewarded with growing sales: Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the ReconstructionLifes Rich Pageant, Document and Green. The band spent almost that entire time on the road, extensively touring each album (internationally from the third onwards) before hurling themselves back into the studio for a condensed session and then a new tour in support of the next record. One of the hardest-working bands of the 1980s, they finally called a time out after the Green tour concluded.

The three-year gap between records concerned their new label, Warner Brothers, who'd signed the band for a reported $12 million in 1988 for a five-album deal. However, the gap was somewhat shorter than it first appeared. The Green tour didn't end until well into 1989 and the band began work on the follow-up in September 1990, leaving only a single year of rest and relaxation between.

The gap year turned into more of a busman's holiday for Peter Buck, though, who decided to expand his musical repertoire by experimenting with more acoustic string instruments. He bought a mandolin, played a few basic chords, spontaneously wrote the opening riff to one of the biggest rock songs of all time, and then immediately forgot about it. The course of REM's history might have been rather different if he hadn't fortuitously recorded his strumming and played it back the next day.

Out of Time is a record that is aptly-named, for it's possibly REM's most diverse album in terms of style and influence whilst also retaining a core dedication to being a pop record. The basic theme going into the session was that the band wanted a "less political" cut than Document and Green, which had both been informed by concerns over American politics, the Cold War and environmentalism. Stipe promised a record of "love songs, nothing but love songs," although in truth he'd barely written any lyrics at all and had a rare bout of writer's block which completely stopped him working on three of the tracks. The band also decided to embrace humour, after the success of the somewhat silly and comedic single "Stand" on Green, and also collaboration, asking friends and professional contacts to help out on the record.

The record opens with the decidedly goofy "Radio Song," echoing its predecessor Green which opened with "Pop Song '89." A comical song about selling out and the mass commercialisation of music, the band brought in rapper KRS-One (best known for his monster track "Sound of da Police") to provide wry commentary over the track. REM's hardcore OG fanbase, who'd been increasingly sceptical over the band's growing popularity, were left bemused. Their hopes this might be the album's goofiest moment were decidedly disappointed a few tracks later.

The second track, of course, is "Losing My Religion," the greatest rock anthem in human history propelled by a mandolin. The record company furiously tried to get the band to change their mind about releasing it as the lead single but eventually admitted defeat, and were completely unprepared for the reaction. The Gabriel Garcia Marquez-influenced video (directed by Tarsem Singh, the first person to ever get Michael Stipe to agree to lip-synch) lodged into permanent rotation on MTV and the song exploded everywhere, scoring them their first US Top Ten single and hitting the #1 spot in countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland. Weirdly, it didn't do very well in the UK, only peaking at #19.

The record settles down a bit with "Low," fittingly the album's darkest moment, a sombre minimalist anthem with a powerful chorus, before perking up again with "Near Wild Heaven," a refreshingly breezy pop song. Stipe hit a brick wall with the lyrics, giving up entirely, so Mike Mills crafted a lyric which worked. Stipe insisted that Mills sing lead with him supporting, their normal roles inverted, and the results so pleased the record company that they released the track as the third single from the album, marking the only original song ever released by the band with Stipe not singing lead (Mills had previously led the "Superman" cover from Lifes Rich Pageant, surprise-released as a single over Stipe's objections).

After an instrumental break for "Endgame", the album picks back up with an avalanche of dramatic strings that promptly explodes into "Shiny Happy People." Stipe had written the song specifically for eight-year-old children and as a fun collaboration with his friend Kate Pierson from fellow Athens band the B-52s. The band enjoyed recording the song, but when the song was picked as the second single from the album and a "quirky" comedy video was shot for it, they quickly found themselves getting sick of the song. Stipe later said he didn't like the song - refusing to sing it during a guest spot on an animated kids' show - and the band infamously never performed it live aside from a single talk show appearance and a guest spot on Sesame Street, and even then changed the lyrics to make it technically a different song. But it's hard to resist the song's infectious energy. REM had a bit of a reputation as a moody art band without a sense of humour on earlier records and Out of Time did a good job of demolishing that by showing their funnier side...even if maybe the song did teeter on the edge of being a corn supernova.

The back half of the record is less contentious, with "Belong" featuring a surprising semi-spoken-word lyric by Stipe and "Half a World Away" and "Me in Honey" (again featuring Pierson) being the kind of excellent, semi-acoustic pop songs that REM could turn out in their sleep by this point. But the back end of the album does feature two of REM's best and most underrated tracks: "Texarkana" is the album's rockiest number, propelled by an explosive bass riff and pounding drums. Surprisingly, it's the second track on the album written by the normally laidback Mike Mills, again with Stipe having bailed on the lyric due to writer's block.

"Country Feedback" is maybe the album's absolute masterpiece of a song. Stipe again rolled into the studio without any lyrics to hand but, perhaps a bit embarrassed by how many times he'd done this, he decided to wing it and sang lyrics he'd made up on the spot. The band decided they'd nailed it in one take and never revisited the song, or apparently even wrote the lyrics down, perhaps explaining why Stipe's live performances of the track tend to feature lyrics that are all over the place. John Keane's pedal steel guitar adds a decidedly different air to the song quite unlike any other REM track (BJ Cole replicated and improved on the sound for European tours in the late 1990s). More than once, Stipe has said it's his favourite REM song, and it was used as the centrepiece of a BBC live special about the band in 1998.

In the REM canon, you can really judge their career as Before Out of Time and After Out of Time, and perhaps more specifically Before "Losing My Religion" and After. Before this album and that song, they were a moderately successful, cult indie guitar band from Georgia who'd scored a number of minor radio songs and British music fans name-dropped to prove they were "with it." Afterwards, they were the Voice of a Generation, the American national flag-bearers of alternative rock (whatever the hell that is; we in the UK never quite figured it out) and MTV-dominating acoustic demigods who rubbed shoulders with world leaders, led by an enigmatic, ambiguous and charismatic frontman. A lot of their old fans who'd been with them since debut single "Radio Free Europe" and their first album, Murmur, felt left behind; others rejoiced that the whole world now seemed to be in on the best-kept secret in rock.

To the utter horror of Warner Brothers, REM decided they would not tour Out of Time. Fortunately, this being 1991, it was possible to make money from actual record sales and as the sales went stratospheric - Out of Time sold 10 million copies in its first year on sale, completely eclipsing their combined back catalogue sales to that point (which also started shooting up as more people discovered them) - Warner Brothers found the dollars pouring in faster than they could count. REM also decided that rather than have a break, they'd head back into the studio to make another record, one that would be rockier and more stadium-filling than their previous one. Instead, they made an album that was much more introspective, more claustrophobic and even darker than Out of Time, which again made the record company apprehensive. Fortunately, that record was called Automatic for the People and it ended up being twice as successful even as Out of Time, so that worked out for everyone involved.

Out of Time is a record of breezy pop songs, heartfelt emotion and perhaps a bit more cheese than the band would have wished to invoke. It's one of the band's two "summery" albums (the other being 2001's underrated Reveal) which is just great fun to whack on a sunny afternoon. It also marks the start of the band's "imperial period," when everything they touched turned to gold and would last for at least four albums afterwards. It was Out of Time but very much of its place.

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Anonymous said...

Kurt Cobain begs to differ on the Voice of a Generation label

Philippe Carrier said...

Just lovely!

Tom Jenen said...

As someone who grew up with REM in the US and actually had a copy of Murmur before Reckoning came out, alternative rock didn't have a definition then, there was post-punk, new wave, and just "college radio". But alternative is simply unconventional or outside the mainstream; usually with more social context, regional roots, from independent labels. In other words, not all love songs with the word "baby" in it.