Put on R.E.M.‘s 1991 album Out of Time— a post-collegiate 25 years old today — and in less than three minutes you’ll be transported to a time when fans could take a band being on the radio as a serious betrayal. “Now our children grow up prisoners,” raps KRS-One, “all their lives… radio listeners!” Then, “Losing My Religion” starts.
The KRS-One spot is endearingly awkward, the kind of cultural gap-bridging moment where it’s impossible to ignore how satisfied all parties are with themselves for bridging the gap. But it’s also the perfect opening for Out of Time, the second major-label album from the poster boys for ‘80s college rock.
It’s about as hard to remain unmoved by “Losing My Religion” as it is to be sure what you’re moved by
When Out of Time dropped, R.E.M. had released five albums on the indie label I.R.S., maintained a grueling touring schedule, and began breaking through to the mainstream with 1987’s Document before jumping Warner Bros. to release 1998’s Green.
The band’s final albums of the ‘80s allowed frontman Michael Stipe’s voice to float a little freer of their brambly, jangling soup; Stipe had begun to actually enunciate, the kind of sop to commercial tastes that worried believers in the gulf between Art and Commerce. So when “Radio Song” ushered in R.E.M.’s 1990s, the gap it was bridging wasn’t really between alt rock and hip-hop, or between white and black worlds, but between Stipe and company’s impeccably principled college-rock past and their uncertain mega band future.
All this makes R.E.M. a standard example in the narrative of the turn of the decade, in which a moribund, hair-choked music industry pounced on the prickly sounds of college radio and digested them into a new, programmable genre called Alternative.
But Out of Time doesn’t sound like Jane’s Addiction and it certainly doesn’t sound like Nirvana. It doesn’t even sound all that much like R.E.M.’s early I.R.S. albums, whose impenetrable undergrowth was a sonic metaphor for the dense, invasive kudzu that blanketed the band’s first and best album cover. The other alt rock first-wavers worked with the raw materials of punk and metal, but R.E.M. was a folk-rock band — descendents of the Byrds rather than the Stooges, a band obsessed with the third Velvet Underground album instead of the first two.
underneath the major-label sparkle and the polite clarity of Stipe’s voice, the college heart beats uninterrupted
So Out of Time is a spacious, gentle record, draped not just in guitarist Peter Buck’s jangle but in mandolin, harpsichord and swirls of strings. The single, “Shiny Happy People,” is so flatly cheerful that fans ended up forever divided on the question of whether it was making fun of itself or not while the closer, “Me in Honey,” twinkles like a lost gem of ’70s AM radio.
But underneath the major-label sparkle and the polite clarity of Stipe’s voice, the college heart beats uninterrupted. You may be able to understand what Stipe’s saying on the droning, ominous “Country Feedback,” for instance, but that doesn’t mean you’ll understand what he means; “Low” and “Belong,” meanwhile, are occasions for earnest, dramatic spoken word. “Texarkana,” a rare abdication of Stipe’s frontman role to bassist Mike Mills, is such a perfect, crystalline slice of jangle-pop it’s possible to wonder for years whether it might secretly be R.E.M.’s best song. (It’s never been performed live.)
And then there’s “Losing My Religion,” their biggest song. Peter Buck’s mandolin transmutes a percolating, old-school R.E.M. riff into their new chamber-pop lushness, while Stipe’s lyrics walk an expert tightrope between poetic obscurity and big, commercial emotions — it’s about as hard to remain unmoved by “Losing My Religion” as it is to be sure what you’re moved by. But is it so hard to guess? Out of Time isn’t R.E.M.’s best album; you can find better ones in both their indie past (Murmur, Lifes Rich Pageant) and their stadium future (Automatic for the People, New Adventures in Hi-Fi). Instead, it’s a perfect bridge between eras: the sound of a band looking for something with which to replace an abandoned value system before they get devoured.
At the dawn of the alt rock era, Stipe and company knew the absurdly vast resources of the corporate beast could be put to noble service, but doing so would require letting go of entire old concepts of purity — and you can hear them let go. That’s them in the corner. And then, that’s them in the spotlight.