It’s not often that a band releases two solid albums in the same week — twenty years apart. But such a gesture is just all in a day’s work for R.E.M. Tomorrow, the Athens, Georgia, rockers release the excellent Collapse Into Now, their fifteenth studio album, while this week in 1991, the band unveiled the lovely Out of Time.
Seldom has a title summarized a collection of songs so well. Out of Time is a genre- and era-free collection that’s arguably R.E.M.’s first truly adult album. (In fact, it took me years after I first heard it – thanks to my early ‘90s Columbia House membership — to fully appreciate its musical depth and lyrical nuance.) Once described by vocalist Michael Stipe as an attempt to “write an album of love songs,” Time is more a psychological dissection of love’s various forms – whether extant, extinct or somewhere in between.
More often than not, love is breaking apart (“Near Wild Heaven,” “Radio Song”), separated by distance (“Half a World Away”) or walking on eggshells (“Losing My Religion”). In “Belong,” fractured love leads to happiness and freedom; in “Near Wild Heaven,” the dissipation is bittersweet. In “Radio Song,” a once-loved tune leads to painful memories, while the tempestuous relationship described in “Me In Honey” becomes even more complicated due to pregnancy. Innocence is often the last thing touched upon — save for the perma-kindergarten waltz “Shiny Happy People” – although Time’s emotional undercurrents (homesickness, longing, loneliness, nostalgia, fear) are primal and easily understood.
Musically, the album remains singular in R.E.M.’s catalog, first and foremost because of its guest appearances. Hip-hop icon KRS-One adds swagger to “Radio Song” – an appearance that to this day polarizes the band’s fanbase. (I fall into the “unorthodox, but it works” camp.) B-52’s sprite Kate Pierson adds effervescent harmonies to “Shiny Happy People” and “Me In Honey” and subtler ones to “Country Feedback.” (Pierson also smiles and shimmies her way through the “People” video, which doubles as a hilarious window into just how much Peter Buck looks like he hates the song.)
But Time is also unique because it’s, well, so weird and accessible at the same time. The piano-blessed “Near Wild Heaven” has relatively simple harmonies, orchestral touches and chiming guitars; in fact, it’s very Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. “Radio Song” has a jazzy organ and saxophone foundation that’s almost funky — or, well, as funky as R.E.M. ever gets — but the strings spinning around the chorus are carousel-dizzy. “Belong” is snapped-fingers slam-poetry alternating with gorgeous wordless harmonies, and “Low” presaged PJ Harvey’s brutal rawness, what with its ominous congas and distressed strings.
“Country Feedback” later became a live showcase for a stormy Buck guitar solo, but its studio version is a cowboys-wearing-spurs lope. “Texarkana” is twang-touched as well; it features a fat bassline, big-sky strings, pedal-steel curls and a yearning lead vocal from Mike Mills. The percussion-free “Half a World Away,” one of R.E.M.’s most criminally underrated songs, thrives on majestic mandolin and acoustic guitar. And, of course, there’s “Losing My Religion,” which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart also on the strength of its mandolin. To this day it remains R.E.M.’s highest-charting song, and it won the band two Grammy Awards.
That Out of Time too was so wildly popular – it spent several weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 album charts, between albums by Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton and Paula Abdul, and won the Best Alternative Music Album Grammy in 1992 — is even more impressive. It’s not pop. It’s not rock. It’s not folk. It’s not country. It’s not even orchestral-pop. It’s a lush amalgamation of all of these genres, and it doesn’t fit into any neat niche. Then again, the mainstream always caved to R.E.M., not vice versa – and in a year caught in the crosshairs of both musical revolution and dying trends, it’s somehow fitting that the scrappy college-rockers managed to connect with an album full of sophisticated, heartfelt sentiments.