For a certain type of R.E.M. fan, Out of Time marks the beginning of the end. The run from Murmur to Green established the cryptic, jangling band from Athens as maybe the Great Underground Hope of the ’80s; and while Green had “Stand” and “Orange Crush”, and the band had scored college and minor chart hits as far back as “Radio Free Europe,” R.E.M.’s audience was still largely subcultural. To be blunt, they weren’t too big to be cool (yet). In a time when the lines between Us and Them, however muddled, were more forcefully drawn, R.E.M. was still Us.
I was ten years old when “Losing My Religion” came out and instantly became my favourite song in the world. At that age, especially, trying to atomize why you love a song on first listen is an exercise in futility; I just knew that I would watch MuchMusic for hours to see the video again, and that for the first time I had a favourite band. I had dim memories of “Stand”, but that song seemed kind of goofy in comparison; this one was somehow dark and mysterious and very apart from its time (not that mandolin is a regular feature of the top ten in any year). My dad was one of those who’d been following R.E.M. at least casually for years, and when he started upgrading his collection to CD from vinyl, my house suddenly had copies of ad hoc IRS best-of Eponymous and Out of Time, the record that spawned “Losing My Religion”.
Going back to Out of Time now, it’s a little weird to put on an album where you think you don’t know half of the songs (“Endgame”? “Texarkana”? “Belong”?), only to hit play and realize that yes, you do. I grew up with the R.E.M. albums that came after Out of Time, not the ones that came before, but with the benefit of a little distance and perspective I can see how the album was both a disappointment for the faithful at the time, and a necessary transitional step. It’s also not nearly as good as I thought it was when I was ten, but what is?
Yes, KRS-One’s guest role on “Radio Song” kind of messes up what’s otherwise a good (if now somewhat antiquated) song with a lovely chorus. Yes, “Shiny Happy People” (a perfectly fine song!) makes more sense on Sesame Street than on the same album as “Losing My Religion” and the burned-out “Country Feedback”. But from the other perspective, the one that knows just how big and defining R.E.M. would get, and how comfortably they would settle (temporarily) into the role of Biggest Rock Band in America (adult division) during the closing years of that office meaning much of anything, the disappointment stems from Out of Time being only half a step away from the group’s sometimes willfully oblique indie roots.
For every “Half a World Away”, a gorgeously folk-inflected, bittersweet ballad that points to where the band would go on the justifiably huge Automatic for the People, there’s an inessential misfire like the instrumental “Endgame,” which pretty much stops the album dead in its tracks. For every compellingly stark “Country Feedback”, there’s a “Belong” that tries to be dark but just sounds muddled. And the variability wasn’t just of quality: the sequencing of the album swings wildly from the unconsciously goofy “Radio Song” to “Losing My Religion”, which manages to elevate an unrequited crush into something dark and haunted. It dives from “Shiny Happy People” into the morass of “Belong”, which seems melancholy even during its wordless, soaring chorus, and it sequences the amazing, brittle “Country Feedback” right before the joyous closer “Me in Honey”.
Part of the confusion that seems to have befallen Out of Time might have to do with Michael Stipe and the rest of the band trying to do love songs for the first time, albeit oblique ones, sometimes to the songs’ detriment. As the dirge-y “Low” puts it, “I skipped the part about love / It seems so silly and low.” However you feel about the overexposed “Everybody Hurts”, it at least marks a time in R.E.M.’s career when the band finally became comfortable talking about emotions directly and sincerely, rather than using various cloaks (mumbling, layers of metaphor, protesting too much). On Lifes Rich Pageant and then increasingly on Document and Green, the band had begun writing more bluntly about political and social issues, but the emotional side had lagged behind. One of the transitions on Out of Time was towards bringing that same bluntness to bear on love, and I’m willing to bet that as much as being on a major label made old fans wary, as much as “Radio Song” and “Shiny Happy People” might have registered as genuinely distasteful, it was probably also jarring to some fans that the band had stopped being so defensive or arch about romance. After all, this was the band that made “The One I Love” into a slap in the face of maudlin romance.
And as with love, stardom: the band was putting itself out there, risking rejection, in a cultural sense as well as a romantic one. Largely due to “Losing My Religion”, with a little help from “Shiny Happy People” and more help from a public still used to buying albums based on singles alone, Out of Time went to number one in the U.S., UK, Canada, and Germany. R.E.M. was now big enough to be uncool, and unfortunately for the band, it had become so with an album that was not a great album. There is greatness in Out of Time, to be sure, and plenty of indication of how great the band was about to get. But there was also enough weaker material here that fans who were reluctant to embrace the band’s embrace of the mainstream had cause enough to proclaim it R.E.M’s worst album to date. Some of those fans would come back for Automatic for the People, a much more consistent and all-around better album. Those who didn’t missed the way that R.E.M. getting bigger didn’t actually weaken the band so much as, on this album, give them growing pains.