Review Summary: It’s crazy what you could’ve had.
Michael Stipe always held that Out of Time
was R.E.M.’s only album of love songs, and for once he was actually telling the truth. The band’s first true hit record presents a characteristically wide-ranging interpretation of the classic theme, exploring longing, bliss, stasis, pregnancy, decay, and… the radio? While this range does create in many cases the same types of cohesion issues as the album's predecessor Green
, the thematic through-line does reward more careful listeners not looking to skip from single to single. R.E.M. test their audience with some left-field decisions on Out of Time
, and while they are certainly not all successful, the result is a strong pop record with more depth and ambition than the singles sticker on the front would suggest.
The aforementioned singles from the album have indelibly dominated the popular memory of Out of Time
. Whereas “Shiny Happy People” may still provoke the most outrage among R.E.M. fans, its opener “Radio Song” that sounds most of its time. The song begins with a beautiful guitar arpeggio as Stipe sings “the world is collapsing around our ears/I turn on the radio,” but the track suddenly heel-turns into an impossibly lame organ-driven funk disaster (with the temerity to return to tease the listener by intermittently returning to that first melody) before ending with a cheesy guest rap verse. “Losing My Religion,” conversely, is a ubiquitous and timeless classic, sharpening Green
’s mandolin experiments into a hit in every sense of the word. Mike Mills’ two lead vocal contributions to the record, “Near Wild Heaven” and “Texarkana” are fairly straightforward (especially from a lyrical perspective), but their sunny disposition and 60s-throwback vibe fit well with the rest of the record, and it is rewarding to finally hear the bassist earn the lead mic – even if it’s not quite high enough in the mix. And look, “Shiny Happy People” may not be the greatest song ever, and makes way more sense as a Sesame Street singalong. But the composition itself, from the tight string arrangement to the bouncy and catchy jangling lead guitar to the three-part harmonies, is a great pop song if you can get past the blindingly sunny lyrics. Whereas “Stand” was dumb with a wink, “Shiny Happy People” barrels along unapologetically with the infuriating cheerfulness of an idiot in love and is all the better for it.
Out of Time
’s deep cuts are more varied and challenging than ever, reflective of a band who must have been pretty confident that they were about to deliver a hit and were determined to enjoy the freedom that it entailed. However, these tracks do give make the record feel less complete - almost as though the listener is biding time between the singles. Some of these songs, such as the lyrically compelling but misplaced and boring “Low” and the Green-esque “Half a World Away” dull the record’s forward momentum to some extent while others, like the barely-not-an-instrumental “Endgame” and the peculiar spoken word “Belong” sound like incomplete demos but are nonetheless enjoyable. The best album tracks come as a set at the end: the aforementioned “Texarkana,” the joyful country duet “Me in Honey,” and of course “Country Feedback.”
“Country Feedback” is the best song the band ever wrote – to the extent that they even wrote it at all. Thinking back to Murmur
, when Michael Stipe’s vocals and lyrics in particular hung low in the mix and the singer himself hid on stage behind long hair, the boldness and sincerity of the vocal performance here is especially stunning. Improvising, Stipe grasps bits and pieces of a decaying relationship – “clothes don’t fit us right,” “self-help, self-pain,” “a maddening loop” – and lays them ducked out in a row atop Buck’s foreboding pedal steel, creating an impressionistic but devastating collage. Stipe’s confessional intrusions of “I’m to blame,” “it’s all the same,” “you wear me out,” “I had control,” guide these images towards their inevitable and painful conclusion: “It’s crazy what you could’ve had. I need this.” His vocals, starkly encased in reverb and decidedly rising above the mix are evocative and exhausted, veering from angry to pleading to ultimately resigned. By the song’s climax, Stipe’s howl twists the knife a little more with every pained repetition “Country Feedback” is a spectacular achievement, the culmination of his development as a lyricist and vocalist and one of most devastating break-up songs ever written.
Taken as a whole, Out of Time
, is a success on a few levels. Its singles, despite their varying quality, made the record a blockbuster hit. The album as a whole fulfils it concept well, repurposing the love song with range and sophistication. Unfortunately, too many of the songs themselves are either forgettable, actively annoying, or feel like misplaced b-sides for Out of Time
to rank among R.E.M.’s classics. The band’s freedom to explore both poppier and experimental sounds inspired the creation of some of their best material ever, and were the gaps filled more effectively, it’s crazy what they could’ve had.