30 Years Later: Revisiting R.E.M.’s Blockbuster ‘Out Of Time’

R.E.M.’s Out of Time (released 3/12/91) sounds like even more of a vast stylistic departure from its predecessors with thirty years of hindsight. Given the quartet’s decision to eschew touring at this point, the move was perhaps logical to an extent, but it was no less courageous a shift especially because, in hindsight, the band made the most of that brave move. What’s so remarkable, in fact, is that with this LP’s successor, Automatic For The People, the archetypal DIY quartet continued a remarkable string of work that actually began with Document,  its mainstream commercial breakthrough in 1987 as well as its immediate successor the very next year, Green (perhaps not coincidentally, their debut for Warner Bros. Records after fulfilling fulfilled its contract with I.R.S. Records.  

As evidence by “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M. didn’t wholly forsake the so-called jangle-pop sound it had honed since the Chronic Town EP. Nevertheless, with the aid of co-producer Scott Litt and engineer John Keane, the foursome pushed itself beyond previously-established boundaries to include even more varied arrangements than on its predecessors. With its plethora of outtakes, the 25th Anniversary edition of Out Of Time illuminates the process that led to the final production: “Radio Song,” for instance, features a momentary insertion of orchestration on each successive bridge. Hearing the record today then, even without direct comparison to its immediate predecessors, can be altogether startling.

It’s quite likely a sensation comparable to hearing the album for the first time when it was originally released. But in addition to a remastered version of the album proper, the aforementioned milestone package in two-CD form includes nineteen tracks comprised of demos of every number eventually included in the official track list. And there are additional snippets of songs as well such as “Me on Keyboard,” and “40 Sec (40 Second Song Demo).” Cuts like “Near Wild Heaven,” even in instrumental form, also constitute confirmation of the quartet’s creative impulses, as do experimental arrangements which are no less effective, like an ever-present organ line offsetting the percussion on “Low.” 

Such studio sketches allowed R.E.M. to test what previously came so naturally to them. Allowing for slight but significant variances, “Losing My Religion 1,” for instance, sounds outright doleful at an ever-so-slightly slower pace, while another version including a forlorn vocal further emphasizes that doleful mood. Highly-clarified remastered audio makes it easy to hear how yet another arrangement might sound with Peter Buck more prominently playing the sweeping chords on (familiar) electric guitar(s) instead of the mandolin.

That subtle touche, in fact, renders Michael Stipe’s vocal even more foreboding. And that’s in marked contrast to his cheery singalong with B52’s Kate Pierson on “Shiny Happy People” Likewise, on “Radio-Acoustic,” the idiosyncratic lead singer pushes the song’s lyrics even further to the forefront, a move he also makes on a take of “Country Feedback:” has he ever sounded so world-weary? Hearing this succession of unreleased content like “Fretless 1” is the aural equivalent of time-lapse photography. 

In fact, it’s possible to hear Out of Time gaining clarity at each repetition of a number. The sequencing of the second CD  affirms that impression, besides suggesting a logic that bespeaks a self-awareness on the part of this package’s curators, Sig Sigworth and Kevin O’Neil, equal to that of R.E.M. itself at the time of the project’s inception and evolution. The well-deserved recognition the effort received at the time of its release, including multiple Grammy Awards, not only enhanced the group’s elevated status in the mainstream, but also validated their decision to sign with a major label (and, in turn, face accusations of ‘selling out’). 

Three decades retrospect also ratifies an increasingly-elevated position in the history of contemporary American rock and roll bands for these purposefully eccentric musicians.

 

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