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Radio Songs: R.E.M.’s Out of Time Turns 30

Though the album will always be remembered for its rousing pop peaks, its best-kept secrets are some of its most indelible moments.

R.E.M., Out of Time

The lilting instrumental track near the midpoint of R.E.M.’s seminal Out of Time can be seen as a blueprint and exemplar for the project. “Endgame” unfolds at a slower pace than much of the band’s catalog up to that point, though their major label debut, 1988’s Green, struck a balance between ballads and galvanizing rockers. The song features folksy, circular acoustic guitar and an electric guitar riff that descends in emphatic single notes rather than chords, accompanied by a lush combination of strings, bass clarinet, and sax.

Much of Out of Time employs similar arrangements to shape songs about repression and liberation, about the search for a personally defined sense of fulfillment in the face of continually not meeting the expectations of others. That subject matter was both ironic and fitting for a band that had, by 1991, found success doing things their own way but were about to release their most mainstream effort to date.

Out of Time is somewhat of an odd duck for such a commercially successful album. Its popularity and renown is largely due to spawning the band’s biggest pop smash, the mandolin-driven “Losing My Religion,” as well as the Top 10 hit “Shiny Happy People.” On its face, this makes sense, as the album’s sonics are the band’s most wide-open and bright, and Michael Stipe’s vocals—infamously and coyly inscrutable, and open to multiple interpretations—are the most decipherable they’d ever been.

Ultimately true to the album’s unsuspecting identity as a blockbuster, though, “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People” almost seem too longing and emotionally gutting for pop radio. These songs are sung from the perspective of a lonely observer, stuck on the outside looking in: Taken together, they describe a wallflower “in the corner,” caught between saying “too much” and not having “said enough,” who’s watching “shiny happy people holding hands.”

Some of Out of Time’s exceptional pleasures are rather offbeat and decidedly not canonical. Two of its most affecting songs, “Near Wild Heaven” and “Texarkana,” are sung by Mills rather than Stipe, a rarity in the group’s catalog, and though Mills’s range pales in comparison to Stipe’s twangy, expressive baritone, the switch-up makes the album feel like more a collaborative effort—furthered by B-52’s singer Kate Pierson’s contributions to “Shiny Happy People” and the astounding, summative closer “Me in Honey.”

Thematically, Out of Time centers on feelings of unattainable happiness, capturing the tendency of life to both surprise and underwhelm. “It’s crazy what you could have had,” Stipe sings on the crushing refrain of “Country Feedback,” contrasting the lyric with a naked plea: “I need this.” On “Belong,” which invokes a creation myth, finds Stipe’s detached narrator describing the love between a mother and her child, his soaring vocal refrain a sort of commiseration with the woman’s desire for freedom for the child.

Aside from brief glimpses of the band’s previous agitated energy on songs like “Belong,” Out of Time doesn’t have quite the same jangle-rock quality of Murmur, Reckoning, or Lifes Rich Pageant. But the highlights here reveal themselves in different ways. The album’s least flashy section is by far its strongest: The final third, beginning with “Half a World Away,” strikes a beautiful mood that it that’s sustained all the way to the end, bolstered by the guitar pedal vibrato on “Country Feedback” and the brush of harpsichord on “Half a World Away,” which predates a similar aesthetic choice on Vampire Weekend’s “Step” by over 20 years.

An exploration of the distinctive, sometimes anomalistic, nature of the album, however, shouldn’t overshadow the exacting musicianship on display. After all, the project’s sessions were partly conducted at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios. “Radio Song,” the opening track, somehow threads a needle between cheeky and sincere, volleying between almost plaintive, undistorted electric guitar notes and the gnarlier organ and distorted guitar crunch. These opposing styles, weaving back and forth, are guided by Stipe’s vocal, which toggles between hopeful and sardonic. Indeed, consistent throughout the band’s work is the way the singer and lead guitarist Peter Buck work in tandem, amplifying and strengthening one another.

R.E.M. was steadily working up to many of the winning-formula components of Out of Time in the albums preceding it. “Radio Song” has the self-aware, meta trappings of Green’s “Pop Song 89,” and the country-influenced arrangements that permeate this album stretch as far back as Reckoning’s “(Don’t Go Back) to Rockville.” Stipe’s terse talk-singing on “Belong” and “Radio Song” also link back to the spoken-word elements of “Stand” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” In this way, Out of Time was both an earned culmination of years of metamorphosis and somewhat of an outlier for R.E.M. It will always be remembered for its rousing pop peaks, yet its best-kept secrets are some of its most indelible moments.

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