R.E.M., “Out of Time” (25th Anniversary Edition)

R.E.M.rem-2016-out_of_time
Out of Time (25th Anniversary Edition)
CONCORD BICYCLE
9/10

By the time Out of Time came out in March 1991, R.E.M. was already well known. The Athens, Georgia, four-piece had five critically acclaimed independent albums to its name and had released Green, its first major label record, three years earlier. Nevertheless, this album changed everything. Heavy MTV rotation of the “Losing My Religion” video made the mandolin-led first single an unexpected runaway hit, helping the record sell over four-and-a-half million copies in the US alone. It thrust Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and—especially—Michael Stipe into the limelight. Almost overnight, the band became a household acronym.

Twenty-five years later, Out of Time still possesses the same kind of power it held then, but it also retains its status as something of an oddity. It’s an album that fluctuates wildly, from the sublime “Country Feedback”—surely one of the saddest, most beautiful songs in the history of modern music—to the over-the-top throwaway pop of “Shiny Happy People,” the song that most R.E.M. fans love to hate. That track, alongside goofy opener “Radio Song” and its dated cameo by KRS-One, are definitely at odds with the majestic melancholy of the rest of the record, but time has also lent them a certain charm.

Beyond “Country Feedback,” “Half a World Away” is a heartbreakingly honest meditation on loneliness (“My hand’s tired, my heart aches” could be the most devastating allusion to masturbation ever recorded), “Belong” and “Low” are glowering, somber reflections of crisis, and “Near Wild Heaven” and “Texarkana,” both sung by bassist Mike Mills, are glorious surges of happy-sad emotion. Which is to say that, beyond the big hits, this is a record full of nuances, a record that matched the quantity of units sold with the quality of its songwriting.

This expanded version includes—of course—a slew of album demos and a recording of one of the band’s rare US gigs from 1991. The former are a fascinating glimpse into the creative process of this album. Only die-hards will find instrumental versions of “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People” worthy of more than one listen, but the alternate vocal takes of the same songs, and the desperate urgency of early versions of “Country Feedback,” “Half a World Away,” and non-album track “Fretless” are essential listening—as is the live set, which confirms just how at the top of their game Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe were at this point in time. It’s a true classic that thoroughly warrants the loving treatment of its anniversary reissue.

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