Out of Time (25th Anniversary Edition)
In March 1991, the same month R.E.M. released its chart-topping seventh album Out of Time, the Canadian comedy group The Kids in the Hall debuted a dark sketch about suicide on its HBO series. In the routine, titled “The Long Note,” the Kids criticize a friend whose farewell note went on too long, while praising another friend’s more concise send-off: “I hear that R.E.M.’s turning it into a song,” remarks Dave Foley, one of the Kids. At this stage in the band’s career, R.E.M. had a (somewhat deserved) reputation as a group that specialized in what singer Michael Stipe called “big, heavy songs.” He and his bandmates had begun revising that reputation a few albums earlier, incorporating more of a mainstream rock sound, while also cautiously embracing sugary pop hooks. Out of Time has some of both—but it was a big, heavy song, “Losing My Religion,” that gave R.E.M. its final push into full-on stardom. “Losing My Religion,” based around a mandolin part by Peter Buck—who’d just begun learning to play it—was one of R.E.M.’s weirdest songs, with no guitar and no chorus: As Stipe once asked, “What kind of pop song is that?” But “Religion” showcased the contours of his craggy baritone, and his poised performance of the song’s enigmatic lyrics pushed it to No. 4 on the Hot 100 pop chart, making for the biggest hit of the band’s career. Though it was far less of a hit, “Shiny Happy People” is the band’s broadest attempt at bubblegum pop, one that prompted plenty of long-term R.E.M. fans to roll their eyes (Stipe, who seemingly agreed, called it “a fruity pop song written for children”). Meanwhile, on “Radio Song,” Buck moves from a glorious arpeggio to funky rhythm chords, and Stipe sweetly mocks the pap that’s coming from a Top 40 station, while acknowledging it has a hold on him. The guest spot from rapper KRS-One—“Baby, baby, baby, baby/That stuff is driving me crazy”—moves the song away from Stipe’s ambivalence, and replaces it with a moralistic disdain. “Near Wild Heaven” has one of bassist Mike Mills’ occasional lead vocals, and it returns R.E.M. to a guitar-based style the band members clearly weren’t ready to abandon. But the album is chiefly about musical evolution. Kate Pierson of The B-52’s adds background vocals—“Shiny Happy People” is pretty much a duet with Stipe—and the songs integrate saxophone, steel guitar, loops, and harpsichord. And there are lush string arrangements throughout by Mark Bingham, an eclectic musician and producer who’d worked with artists ranging from Ringo Starr to avant-garde noise mangler Glenn Branca. Out of Time is shot through with artful, mysterious beauty, whether in the harmonized, wordless refrain of “Belong” or on “Me in Honey,” about an unexpected pregnancy. R.E.M.’s use of non-rock instrumentation was artistically successful enough that they continued it on their next album, Automatic for the People, the band’s middle-period masterpiece.