In 1989, after a decade of tours and releases and following the Green shows, R.E.M. decided to take a break from touring and write a studio record. Decamping with Scott Litt in 1990, to Prince‘s Paisley Park in Minneapolis and New York’s Bearsville Studios, the record they would produce would end up being their most accessible, and chart blockbusting long-player yet.
In 1991, a year before Nirvana would release Nevermind and the guitar sounds in vogue were mostly noisy and angular, in the spring R.E.M. released their most commercial record yet, Out of Time. By their admission, R.E.M. were bored of sounding like R.E.M. They wanted to stretch themselves and throw out the rules they had set themselves until now.
“One of the rules we had when we started writing songs for the record was ‘there will be no more R.E.M songs,’” bassist Mike Mills told Gigwise in 2016. “If it sounds like an R.E.M song that could have been on any of the last two or three R.E.M records, we tossed it.”
An album musically out of its time yet still timeless, with its illusions to ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s rock and pop music history, yet also slap in the middle of the charts, it carried a title that hints at them running out of time to find a title itself. 1991 saw R.E.M. capture the charts, and capture hearts.
Shifting towards a gorgeously lush Americana tinged power-pop sound with shades of everything from the Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac and The Byrds, yet anchored by the more experimental album tracks, it still sounds like R.E.M. but geared for FM radio in HI-FI. Out of Time was like a buffed up Cadillac to Green‘s reclaimed mountain bike with spiky tread. Listening to it again sounds like driving through America’s vast highways and deserts.
They also cut back on one of their biggest weapons – Peter Buck’s electric guitar, which was a defining characteristic of their earlier albums. “Yeah, I guess I jangled for a while,” Peter Buck told Rolling Stone at the time. “I can write that kind of stuff in my sleep. I can write ‘Driver 8’ every day of the week. We all can.”
“I was a little bored with guitar, I had been playing it eight hours a day for all of my life.” he continued.
“With Peter not wanting to play electric guitar, we started writing differently,” said bassist Mike Mills. “The songs you write on an acoustic or a mandolin or balalaika, or what have you, tend to be different than what you’d write on an electric guitar.”
Swapping instruments freshened up the dynamic and allowed them to experiment and stretch themselves as musicians and song writers. As bassist Mike Mills explained, “We wrote a lot of the songs with me on organ, Bill [Berry] on bass, and Peter on guitar or mandolin. That’s why they’re so different from the ones on other albums.” It also broke another unwritten rule that Michael Stipe had kept throughout their albums thus far, don’t write simple straightforward love songs. They didn’t just break this rule, they obliterated it.
Out of Time is “an album of love songs.” Stipe told Rolling Stone, “Love songs are one thing I’ve never tackled. At least upfront love songs. It was a big step.”
By channelling the emotional and the personal and sharpening not just the melodies but the clarity of his words, Out of Time saw Stipe shifting from the political moments of Green or the oblique abstract of some of the early records. Here he is excelling and revelling in the role of a confident lyricist, someone who could master different styles and perspectives, juxtaposing the wistfulness of his words with joyous melodies, blurring the lines between fiction and reality by inhabiting characters with human experience: capturing the pitfalls and esctacy of love. ‘Life is bigger’ indeed.
Out of Time is woven with orchestral elements: cello, violins and woodwind are garnished throughout, typified by cooing melodies of string-led instrumental ‘End Game’. The strings would be in even heavier effect on the follow up Automatic but more about that next. Out of Time has the qualities of a stage show, where each guest plays a part.
They were joined by an impressive cast list including composer Jay Weigel who oversaw the strings throughout. One of the best rappers of the moment KRS One awkwardly and bombastically styling it out on one of their most ill-fitting openers, ‘Radio Song’, a critique of mainstream pop that filled the airwaves in the early ’90s. Ironically, in a few months, Out Of Time’s singles would be filling up radio playlists across the world.
Peter Holsapple, touring guitarist and formerly of the dbs, and horn-player Kidd Jordan were amongst those adding a greater depth and breadth to the sound. Holsapple added acoustic and glistening guitars to songs like ‘Losing My Religion’ when Buck had stepped to a different instrument. Kate Pierson of The B-52’s, an Athens band who even predated R.E.M.’s assent, lent her wonderful harmonies on ‘Shiny Happy People‘ and closer ‘Me In Honey’.
Their most accessible album yet, more a collection of songs as much as an album: this is shimmering string draped guitar pop music infused with a bittersweetness, but also balances two elements of melody and rich folk-tinged songs that would hint at what was to come with Automatic casting illusions to their artistic side.
But most of all it’s defined by two huge singles, that are less just hit records and more landmarks in their career as they shifted from alternative band on an independent label to mega-successful pop property on a major label, a position they would hold for much of the ’90s. Out of Time gave them their first U.S. and UK No. 1 album and three Grammys.
Preceding the release was ‘Losing My Religion’. This behemothic single crash landed into the charts. This minor chord epic is led by Buck’s instantly recognisable mandolin riff, that came to him when he was still learning the instrument, and an undeniable rhythm section. They listened to it night after night honing its constituent parts, crafting what is perhaps one of the most unconventional pop earworms of all time. Recorded in one take, Stipe’s quivering melodrama is sublime, invested with the desperation of obsessional and unrequited love: fixed with a series of emphatic images that battle with inner turmoil. (“Like a hurt, lost and blinded fool, fool”) melding the personal, religious and universal (“that’s me in the corner/that’s me in the spotlight”) he emotes with his hands, in the memorable video.
Compared to ‘Every Breath You Take’ by Stipe himself, ‘Losing My Religion’ was immediate, and universal yet given duality by darker themes – it is, well, a bit stalkery. This kind of dichotomy was a trick R.E.M. had pulled off time and again, but never so successfully before, it landed at no 4 in the billboard chart and was a worldwide hit. He told Consequence of Sound in 2016. “I had not written love songs up to that point, so this was me stepping into what I consider to be the most cliched pop songs.”
Videos were very important for R.E.M. around the Out of Time and Automatic for the People releases, when they weren’t touring, only performing an acoustic show around the release of Out of Time, so visual communication was vital to their success.
The video for ‘Losing My Religion’ is particularly burnt in the memory due to its visual impact, setting and its heavy rotation on MTV. It was directed by Tarsem Singh(Suzanne Vega, En Vogue) which was a departure as up until this point the group’s singer Michael Stipe had directed their music videos, or entrusted those around him to do so. Claiming he would never lip synch in videos something he kept to in their first decade, and inspired by Gabriel García Márquez and Caravaggio, it effortlessly mixes high art and implants it into the mainstream, as was their want as a band. The videos vivid and abstract iconography, angel wings, the foreboding of water, and the setting of a single seat by a window and Stipe’s magnetic performance and elastic dance, made a mark and added even more levels to this extraordinary pop song.
Singh told Rolling Stone about the videos original concept: “I told him there’s a story by Gabriel García Márquez called “A Very Old Man With Wings” in which this freak angel arrives and nobody knows quite what to do with it. So it’s that story, told abstractly through the style of these guys called Pierre et Gilles, who are these iconic gay photographers that take how Indians do their gods and goddesses, then they do that to the Western gods. I said that it would be interesting to have an Indian copying two French guys copying Indian work. That’s the style of one piece [in the video], that’s the heavenly abode. And the place where the angel lands, it would look like Caravaggio, whose lighting I really like. Then there’d be propaganda posters, which is a third group of people who might see this event, but might misinterpret it or come up with a different solution altogether. I said [to Stipe], “I didn’t know how the three will be cut with each other, except I saw you dance, and I think that can be interesting.” And that was my pitch. I’m sure it made no sense.”
The second landmark single, was the jangly sugar-sweet pop of ‘Shiny Happy People’ conceived by Stipe as a jokey throwaway song to cheer people up amid Middle East Warfare, the Kate Pierson duet became omnipresent on radios in 1992, a dumb fun novelty singalong, even the bands faces in the video suggest they weren’t exactly serious in their delivery, their tongues wedged firmly in their cheeks, but the waltzing bridge and break down is still, no matter how much they protest, enormously fun and very catchy.
“I really wanted it to be happy, but like the Monkees or the Banana Splits happy … fruity happy like fruit striped gum. When we did the video Kate showed up really dolled up and she looked supergreat, but we had to amp it all up to kind of match her. I went home and got all my yellow green clothes and the dance got a little sillier.” Stipe remarked.
Somewhat ruined by overplaying, the band disowned the song and barely ever played it live, it became an albatross around their neck, they spoke of regret that this song defined them in much of the general public’s eyes. “I’ve made my excuses over and over again,” Stipe joked with the Guardian, “and I’ll go to the Hague with my excuses for that song.”
The record’s third track ‘Low’ speaks to trauma and illicits an unsettled feeling, written in a quieter moment about a fever dream Stipe had on tour. It is almost Lou Reed in its downtempo fractured spoken word introspection and clipped guitars that simmer before attacking. “I missed the part about love” sings Stipe, perhaps referencing his songwriting, the guilt of the protagonist’s one night stand, or perhaps the mystery surrounding his own sexuality? (He had talked of being bisexual in the press but later came out). Its another track that weights the album with artistry.
Two heartstopping moments provide a bridge from the folkier moments of Green and signal what’s to come on Automatic – the wistfully enveloping ‘Half A World Away’ strums and tumbles forth with an enchanted, almost hippy, longing that stares out into the night’s sky and hopes for more from life. While the masterful ‘Country Feedback’ laced with Buck’s looping three chords, subtle background percussion and sliding wispy guitars. allows Stipe to luxuriantly roll in the regret of character’s break up. A brooding Stipe embodying his role, reeling off a list of failures and objects cast off, amidst an excellent feedback scorched crescendo. Its one of the finest and perhaps most underrated tracks on the record.
“I had a pretty clear idea of what I was good at and how I could manifest that,” Stipe told the Guardian in 2016, “but also the power of the word. … I began to realize around Document [in 1987] that I had the the skill and I honed it. In time, it went from skill to art and my job was to forget everything and allow the instinct to take over, and that’s when the great songs came.”
Whilst these songs are steeped in Stipism, on the other hand Out of Time is also very Mike Mills – it is threaded with at least three or four songs that seek his love of pure melody and arpeggio guitars. Suppling lead vocals on the sublime single “Near Wild Heaven” that radiate with love, and community (‘holding our hands together/holding ourselves together”) each vocal takes a part – perhaps a reference to The Beatles ‘Because’ – with chiming guitars punctuating. While the sweeping strings and sun-soaked melodies of ‘Texarkana’ are released by a funky bass lick and galloping percussion, the hopeful melodies led by Mills are spiralling and wonderful. Lovelorn closer ‘Me In Honey’ focuses on a relationship on the rocks where a pregnant partner struggles hold onto a relationship with someone who doesn’t want kids. Rippling with looping riffs and soaring choruses, Stipe, Mills, and Berry are joined again by Pierson whose glorious swirling vocal harmonies whip up this wave of addictive melodies and glistening guitars – it’s a power pop tour de force.
‘Belong’ meanwhile draws together the album’s two sides, the tenderly drawling spoken word narrative phone call from Stipe in the verses is fired by a rush of melody in its chorus line. What it lacks in actual song structure is made up for with how it wears its heart on its sleeve.
“We did a remarkable job of maintaining integrity throughout a very difficult period and in a difficult industry,” Stipe told The Guardian. “We forged a new path. We created a new way for people to look and approach this and not become an empty puppet or a dog and pony show.”
Released on March 12, 1991, Out of Time went four-times platinum. Out of Time was R.E.M.’s first chartbuster, it was open, hopeful and full of heart, each song wrestling with the themes of love, the unrequited, the heartbroken and the fully realised. It’s also layered in melody and ladled with a rich tapestry of elegant instrumentals and draped strings. The lush, intricate production that was pitched just right for the songs.
It wasn’t perfect – there were a few missteps, but for a band who had been touring and releasing for a decade at this point, it still sounds fresh, lighter and like they are having fun recording it – a shining and welcoming a pop record that the ’90s would witness, distilling their melodic intent as a band, it took them stratospheric.
They had come of age as a pop band but one that always took a different approach to the world, who spoke out on issues like the right to vote, poverty and Aids and had an enigmatic frontman who was equal parts reluctant elder statesmen for generation X and for those who felt like they didn’t fit in. A shamanic leader, who stood apart from standard notions of masculinity, unafraid to share his emotions and his sexual duality.
“I couldn’t go anywhere after [‘Losing My Religion’] became the huge hit single that it became around the world,” Stipe told Consequence of Sound, admitting that the band started calling him “Face,” since he was suddenly so recognisable.
In the main Out of Time sounds absolutely triumphant, R.E.M. were positively blooming and heading for the top of the charts. ‘Nightswimming’, a song recorded during the sessions would usher the way forward and in two years they would deliver their artistic masterpiece.