Album Review – Out of Time by R.E.M (1991) (Warner Bros)

Out of Time was the most commercially successful of all the R.E.Malbums, despite being the one phase one album (i.e. their best years prior to the Up album in 1998) that certain music journalists, whose reviews include in depth analysis of guitar tabs and ‘time signatures’ (whatever they may be?), denigrated with the sort of frenzied passion usually only reserved for other multi-million sellers such as Aqua’s Barbie Girl or the Crazy Frog tune.

So what heinous crime against Indie music did R.E.M actually commit with this album? The answer of course is absolutely nothing; it was merely a step too far in a different more pop oriented direction that from a superficial level at least, added a delight to an aesthetic that had previously been dominated by grumble, glorious jangled grumble, but still grumble.

However, at this point where else could they go? The previous six albums had seen them dominate both the radio stations and the stadiums of the world in a manner that their early dissident ideals and humble beginnings would never have foreseen or perhaps even wanted.

Having ‘made it’ wasn’t it now time to either have a bit of fun or ensure that they could never be musically typecast and swallowed up by an industry that would have been expectant of yet more of the same tried and tested formula. As such Out of Time is the sound of R.E.M re-inventing themselves in accordance to their own terms and despite the panning from the critics it received, is without doubt R.E.M at their most aurally eclectic, if not necessarily their best. 

This re-invention was achieved in two main ways.  Initially they dared to change the tried and tested roles of the band and from a secondary perspective they even let the ‘strangeness of others’ infiltrate the sacred four. The change in roles is seen most provocatively with Mike Berry taking lead vocals in tracks such as the pop infused Near Wild Heaven (see below) and the more raucous and driven wildness of Texakarna. It may have been considered as a demotion of sorts for Michael Stipefrom front man duties, if it was not so obviously engineered in accordance to the very essence of their undeniable ‘group community’.

Near Wild Heaven
Similarly, but in a more pronounced manner, the aesthetic of the era’s most successful band was further superbly ripped apart with the introduction of ‘others’. Kate Pierson, another part of the original Athens scene with her band The B-52’s, takes joint lead vocals with Stipe in the superb Shiny Happy People (see below).

Shiny Happy People

I am perhaps one of the few people who will openly admit to loving this frenzy of a bubblegum pop-song although it is easy to see how many might dismiss this as R.E.M just trying to make more money by appealing to the masses. However, in inimitable R.E.M style there is so much morehidden depth to this track and indeed many of the others in the album.

This track is reported to be about Chinese Communism with the shiny happy people holding hands lyric that gets repeated ad nausea, being used to highlight the way in which the Chinese or indeed all communist states, hide behind their self publicized pictures of happiness and joy, as they promote the ideal of their political systems as if events like Tiananmen Square were just something that was caused by one crazy student who happened to have no fear of tanks, rather than being symbolic of a more desperate underlying issue. As such the ‘shiny happiness’ of this track needed to be as glossed, polished and commercial sounding as possible if it was to have any real meaning. This was done superbly and accentuated by a video that has the usually morose wistful looking Stipe prancing about with demented joy on his face in a manner that simply oozed caricature.

This exposing of the contrived is effectively a general topic of the album, it is just superbly well hidden in the style of typical R.E.M antithesis and perversity. Radio Song, again goes down a commercial route with the usage of completely R.E.M atypical funk as Stipe tries to hide the true meaning of his anxiety about the state of the music invading general radio play. Again the general morose R.E.M formula might well have got this message across just as well. However that had already been done and this album was all about challenging conceptions of music and R.E.M’s part in an industry that was consuming itself with money lust, something completely different achieves this target more appropriately.

Losing My Religion

loss of affection for music is highlighted most evidently in the best religious song that is not actually about religion. Losing My Religion (see above), sees Stipe / R.E.M increasingly in the ‘spotlight’, increasingly pigeon-holded into the ‘corner’ of where the music industry considered the band to have their place. Stipe’s reluctance to accept this place, his reluctance to accept what music was becoming, see him repeat the desperate lines about him ‘losing his religion’ in reference to him falling out of love with the music that had hitherto been the most important thing in his life. It is truly a heart-rendering track, again hidden behind the false superficial meaning of the lyrics.

In general, far from being the attempt to make a quick buck that many have dismissed this album as, this album should actually be seen as the bands album of rebellion. The fact that  many cannot understand this and that it sold millions because it was ‘poppy’ probably broke Stipe’s heart even further and was testament to the authenticity of his anxiety about the perilous state of the music industry.

I love this album…there I have said it !

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