Was the biggest R.E.M. album also their best?
It would be fair to say that I didn’t know anything about R.E.M. prior to 1991, when their landmark album Out of Time dropped and the single “Losing My Religion” made the radio safe for mandolin solos.
Then again, I was eleven at the time and didn’t know much about music anyway aside from what I heard on the radio, but that would change soon enough. R.E.M. were kind of “local,” in that their hometown of Athens, Georgia, wasn’t too far away from my neck of the woods in upstate South Carolina; it felt good to know that rock stars could exist theoretically just a short drive away (I was ignorant of the vibrant Athens music scene which the group had sprung from, including the B-52’s and Pylon). R.E.M. remain my vote for the most significant band in American rock history, though I’m sure that will piss off fans of Smash Mouth.
Out of Time is both a great album and a victim of its time, as evidenced by the opening “Radio Song,” a noble effort at rap-alternative-rock with the great KRS-One that doesn’t quite land with me (I usually skipped it any time I listened to the album). Some of the other songs are just okay, but the ones that still work for me are songs that evoke the variety of the band’s approach. Out of Time captures them at a moment when, just before “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” alternative music still was “the alternative” to what was on the radio. R.E.M. had a decade of laying the groundwork for Out of Time, and it also signaled the moment when alternative rock became the mainstream. If I may, the album contains some of their finest work-songs to that effect.
Prior to Out of Time, R.E.M. had been the crown jewel of IRS Records, and they had some modest success with songs like “Radio Free Europe” and the immortal “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” But they weren’t rock stars yet; compared to MTV rock darlings like Aerosmith or hair-metal gods like Whitesnake, the boys in the band looked pretty tame. Plus, the Eighties was all about synthesizer, and R.E.M. sounded more like the Byrds than Depeche Mode. But they were carving out a niche for themselves on the alternative scene, becoming the standard bearers for college rock and inspiring countless other bands and artists to give it a try.
Out of Time was the follow-up to their major-label debut, Green, which had been released by Warner Brothers in 1988. What happened between that album’s release and the recording of Out of Time is that the band decided they were tired of being loud. No other group would’ve had the balls to record a song with a mandolin as the primary instrument, much less make it the lead single. But that’s just what R.E.M. did on the song that came to define them, “Losing My Religion.” Along with the accompanying video, the song dominated radio and the airwaves when it was released just prior to the album. A haunting, moody effort about doomed love or something like that, it’s *the* song in their career, the one that marks the point where they went from being alternative rock to rock stars. Which is weird when you consider that, once again, the main instrument Peter Buck uses is a mandolin.
VIDEO: R.E.M. “Losing My Religion”
The video is etched into my memory, its imagery forever of a moment when the change from the Eighties to the Nineties was just occurring. It’s the kind of song that brings people together; I remember once singing along to it with my mom when we were driving around one day and it came on the radio a few years back. We both knew the words.
There are other songs on here that are equally memorable, like “Near Wild Heaven” (a duet between Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills), and “Texarkana,” and some that I’ve rediscovered thanks to YouTube, like “Country Feedback” and “Half a World Away.” But honestly, the song that I love off this album the most is perhaps the most divisive one in R.E.M. fandom. Yes, I am speaking of “Shiny Happy People.”
VIDEO: R.E.M. “Shiny Happy People”
Perhaps it’s nostalgia for seeing the video on Friday Night Videos, NBC’s attempt to ape MTV during that era. Perhaps it’s because for the longest time I thought that the old guy riding the bicycle that starts up the video was Police Academy alum George Gaines (I don’t think it is). Or perhaps it’s just because, inside my sneering alternative-rock body there beats the heart of a pop-music-loving kid who enjoys silly singalongs and Stipe’s odd yellow baseball cap in the video. Whatever the case, I honestly love this song, and I will brook no difference of opinion (even if it comes from the band members themselves). Just for the hell of it, I hope the song is stuck in your head now as you read this sentence, without benefit of the link to the song on YouTube (though I’m sure it’ll appear in this article). It’s a bonkers good time of a song, people!
Okay, anyway…one important thing about the album that I didn’t know at the time was that its release was accompanied by a petition to make voting registration easier for people to accomplish, and that petition led eventually to the passage of the “Motor Voter Act” that lets people register at the local DMV. Funny, it seems like voter registration became kind of an issue during the last election cycle.
Out of Time made R.E.M. the biggest rock stars in the world, at least until Nirvana dropped Nevermind later that same year. But R.E.M. is still the most important band in American rock music, to my way of thinking, and it’s on the strength of this album that their status is assured.
So crank up “Shiny Happy People” and enjoy the moment, because Out of Time is 30 years old.