1991’s Out of Time, the seventh studio album from alternative rock back R.E.M., features elaborate arrangements in which there are not only the main rock instruments but an array of other voices, among them brass, strings and percussion.
However, the album is most notable for the single “Losing My Religion“, a superb portrait of anxieties on which one of the guitar’s sweeter and more folky cousins, the mandolin, is played by Peter Buck.
More often R.E.M.’s lead guitarist, Buck has been praised for his tendency to pick his guitar (instead of strumming) more than most rock players did prior to his ascendancy. Buck’s playing of mandolin and guitar is easily the greatest thing about Out of Time.
He brilliantly illuminates every song like no other contributor to this album. He rescues songs like “Radio Song” from potentially languishing in mediocrity without his input, something which would remain the case even with the unusual but ultimately ineffective presence of hip-hop artist KRS-One.
However, other band members also have their moments. “Half A World Away” is one of the collective high-points of the album, as is “Losing My Religion”, which showcases a melodically interesting bassline by Mike Mills. Other star turns include the underrated “Texarkana” – another highlight for Mills – and the slow classic “Country Feedback“. On “Texarkana” and “Near Wild Heaven“, the bassist does well yet again as lead vocalist.
Meanwhile, in the midst of this crossroads where vaguely alternative and strongly mainstream sounds meet, Michael Stipe contributes typically enigmatic poetry and lyrics. That said, at least here – in contrast to, for example, the band’s debut album – the listener can usually clearly make out the words.
This is true even if the lines (for example, “Blackbirds, backwards, forwards and fall”) do not always convey much more meaning than many of the band’s early songs did. Ultimately, though, the likes of “Low” and “Belong” would still remain good even if they were judged on their words alone.
Although one of the album’s singles, “Shiny Happy People” seems simple, it actually might have a hidden political meaning which is very different from that suggested by its title and overall mood, something which may or may not enhance the song’s overall quality. Its main guitar riff ensures that particular single is greater than average and helps consolidate its radio-friendly appeal.
“Losing My Religion” and “Country Feedback” display the album’s greatest words. The latter is a stream-of-consciousness-style poem that sometimes brings forth the elongated notes of a song, but the track is effective nonetheless: both music and lyrics are invocative of dusky introspection.
On top of her role as backing vocalist on “Shiny Happy People”, The B-52s’ Kate Pierson contributes some vocals again on “Me In Honey”. However, despite Pierson’s contributions and a pretty broad instrumental palette, the album still manages to sound rather samey in a way. The record could benefit, though, from more heaviness than just the brooding sense of gloomy depths that sometimes emerges from the music.
As well as projecting, at certain points and most notably on “Shiny Happy People”, something akin to a sunshine-filled day, the album’s music can, at times, seem misty. Similarly, it can seem, despite its various shades, rather dated (despite the album’s title).
One longs for the bolder, even more beautiful tones of later R.E.M. songs like the piano of Up’s “At My Most Beautiful” or, at the other end of the spectrum, the grungy distortion of Monster’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”
In conclusion, Out Of Time remains, despite evident room for improvement, an excellent album. Still varied without being too fragmented, it is also – more importantly – high in quality. The album is arguably enhanced by its old-fashioned or ‘out of time’ feel, and great musicianship trumps such quirks as the lyrics’ strangeness.
This puzzling and colourful classic from 1991 leads into the even better follow-up, 1992’s melancholy-but-mellow Automatic For The People. Like that album, Out of Time is a frequently interesting and often compelling step on R.E.M.’s road of reinvention that endured as they navigated through the Nineties and, a decade after Out of Time, arrived at Reveal.
R.E.M.’s eclectic journey would not be complete without this album: important, if not exactly essential, listening. Purchase it on iTunes here, and stream it below.
Words by David J. Lownds