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Shiny, Happy Music (albeit rather insubstantial), June 16, 2004
on 11 September 2012
OUT OF TIME stands as something of a paradox in R.E.M.'s discography. Even though it's R.E.M.'s most inconsistent album, OUT OF TIME ushered in a new, radical phase in the band's career, moving them far and away from such groundbreaking recordings as MURMER or RECKONING. Because of the massive hit "Losing My Religion," R.E.M. came out from the underground and began their mainstream career. While all the subsequent records (AUTOMATIC, MONSTER, NEW ADVENTURES, UP, and REVEAL) have moved them further along the lines of reinventing their sound, this transformation started here.
Ironically enough, this is R.E.M.'s worst album, although this is the very record that broke them into mainstream and enabled them to make some of the greatest music of their career. While many purists despise this album, I personally feel that without this record which brought R.E.M. such massive success, we wouldn't have those great later day records. It may have turned off a lot of fans, but OUT OF TIME brought R.E.M. to national attention. Still, it can be hard to swallow some of this record.
Filled with sonic grooves and textures, bright, shinny production, and lots of outside collaboration, OUT OF TIME finds R.E.M. moving away from the more jangly pop and underground sound of their IRS years to a more mainstream, streamlined sound. ("Radio Song," one of the more bizaare collaborations with rapper KRS-1, is a fun, jaunty little song, but still sounds, after all these years, as a rather misguided and a largely failed experiment.) The biggest problem with OUT OF TIME is, after the record finishes, there's not a lot to return too. It's a shiny, happy record, without much substance.
Any record where the production is more noteworthy than the songwriting is in deep trouble, and that is exactly where OUT OF TIME suffers. I do admire the band's ambition to broaden and deepen their sound, bringing in mandolins, keyboards, and even string sections. It's just the songs on OUT OF TIME are so breezy and insubstantial that is plays like a 1970s Wings album. It gets in a mellow, sunny groove, more concentrated on making a pleasant summer record than making lasting music. Like "Shiny Happy People," OUT OF TIME is a great catchy album overall but when it comes down too it, stripping away all the bright production and concentrating on the album itself, there's not really that much to it. Even the title has that tossed off feel. The band laterally ran out of time to come up with a title, hence the name.
However, when the band does get the songwriting right, then OUT OF TIME strikes gold. The aforementioned "Losing My Religion" deserves all the acclaim it gets. (Who'd think a mandolin driven song would be such a huge hit???) "Half a World Away," "Texarkana," and "Near Wild Heaven" are essential songs. Also, the two outtakes on the bonus disc from IN TIME, R.E.M.'s recently released greatest hits compilation, would have greatly aided this record. "Fretless" and "It's a Free World Baby" are both more substantial than most of the material here and Buck even said to send in a resequenced setlsit to the band because they were thinking about reissuing this album with these two songs incorporated into it.
The real masterpiece, however, is the phenomenal song "Country Feedback." Capturing a general psychic unrest and a searching for meaning, "Country Feedback" is easily my favorite song on the album and one of my top ten R.E.M. songs. The lyrics reminds me "E Bow the Letter." Both "E Bow" and "Country Feedback" have a very distinctive, haunting style that never fails to capture my ear, with wonderful, free association lyrics wedded with R.E.M.'s great instrumental sensibilities. One of R.E.M.'s best. Great live version on IN TIME on the B-Side disc.
In the end, OUT OF TIME never really offends; it just never really makes you think other than the two aforementioned masterpieces. It's a pretty fun record to listen too, but not something to return too time and time again. It's ironic that this is the album that catapulted them into mainstream radio, given OUT OF TIME's spotty nature. R.E.M. made great records before this, and they made wonderful records after this. We can thank OUT OF TIME for coming at that critical juncture, that linchpin record that secured R.E.M. a place in 1990s mainstream rock. Just wish it was a more substantial record than what it is.