R.E.M – ” Out Of Time ” Released 25 Years Ago Today

Posted: March 12, 2016 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
Tags: , , , ,

Though their previous album, 1988’s Green, can be counted as a commercial success, R.E.M. was still largely dismissed as a college rock band more known by the 120 Minutes set than the mainstream. That would all change with 1991’s Out of Time, and its hit single, “Losing My Religion.”

More than a career-making breakthrough, however, Out of Time helped to define a transitional phase in rock music, leading alternative music to the top of the charts while paving the way for the grunge revolution with its less contemplative lyrics and more severe sound. Eventually, groups like Alice in Chains, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam started to surpass groups like R.E.M. (at least for the moment), allowing Out of Time to take on another meaning, as the possible last gasp of the underground rock era.

On the 25th anniversary of its release today, Out of Time is still an immensely listenable affair and its importance should be celebrated. And so, with that in mind, we decided to rank the 11 songs on this immortal alt-rock classic.

“Belong” is a character study of a woman brought to the brink of a nervous breakdown by an unnamed news event who clutches her child close in an effort to steel herself and regain her composure. Although the song’s melodic wailing chorus from Michael Stipe and Mike Mills is haunting, the song feels oddly disconnected from the rest of the album.

Throughout the 1990s, countless mixtapes wrapped up with this gentle track as warmly as a parting farewell handshake to a friend. Here, Stipe belts out nonsense sing-song words, allowing the track’s lush instrumentation to take center stage. On the cassette version of Out of Time, “Endgame” was the final song on the so-called “Time Side” (with the other being the “Memory Side”). This is brilliant placement, as the tune’s reflective nature offers brief solace from the heavy emotions that dominate the rest of the album.

Given Michael Stipe’s dynamic persona, it’s easy to forget that R.E.M. contained another vocalist. This album afforded Mike Mills the opportunity to really step into the spotlight, with this track being his finest moment. As rustic as the environs from which it took its name, the song — whose melody and lyrics were also created by Mills — spins a yarn about a redemption-seeking man desperate for another shot. “Catch me if I fall,” wails Mills throughout the song, and you can and will be waiting to do just that.

Easily the most divisive song in R.E.M.’s entire catalog, “Shiny Happy People” is, depending on your point of view, the group’s foray into disposable bubblegum pop or a cloying, insidious earworm that was the early ’90s equivalent of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Regardless of your opinion on the song’s merits, it’s difficult to not, at least, be charmed by the guest vocals from Kate Pierson of The B-52s, whom R.E.M. knew from the Athens, Georgia music scene.

For this heavy-handed condemnation of Top 40 radio, R.E.M. enlisted the help of Boogie Down Productions’ KRS-One to sing a closing rap verse about how “now our children grow up prisoners/ all their life radio listeners.” This song seems dated to the point of quaintness now that music fans have more options than ever to individualize what they listen to. Then, there’s the delicious irony of this being the fourth single released from Out of Time, issued at a time when R.E.M. owned the airwaves and had become the very thing they are criticizing here.

It’s worth noting that R.E.M. again attempted to incorporate rap into their music — with much greater success — by featuring A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip on “The Outsiders” from their underrated 2004 effort, Around the Sun.

A powerful song of frustration and loss, “Low” is a song whose impact isn’t immediately evident thanks to it being buried in the track-listing behind the juggernaut that is “Losing My Religion.” Michael Stipe’s lyrics here seem more personal — “I skipped the part about love/ it seemed so silly,” he muses — than the usual ambiguousness that he was known for, foreshadowing the heart on the-sleeve nature of the subsequent Automatic for the People LP.

By the time he angrily declares “you and me/ we know about time” just before the sad resignation that closes the track, listeners have discovered “Low” for what it truly is: The album’s secret weapon that exposes how devastating heartache can be.

It’s unclear exactly how much R.E.M. listened to Pet Sounds while crafting this summery slice of pop bliss, but I’m guessing it was a considerable amount. Mike Mills again delivers lead vocals here, marking the first time that an official R.E.M. single was released without Stipe being front and center. Sure, this is a lightweight track compared to the heaviness that will define the rest of this list but that’s more than okay. Sometimes you just want to drive around on a nice day and let music put the nastiness of life far from your mind. And when songs like this one can accomplish such a thing, why that’s near wild heaven, indeed.

“This could be the saddest dusk I have ever seen.” Those words kick off “Half a World Away,” a devastating, if somewhat oblique, focal point from Out of Time. Hinting at a relationship gone wrong due to issues ranging from alcohol to physical and literal distance, Stipe’s mournful vocals are heightened by the happy musical dirge accompanying them. This cacophony of organs, harpsichords, and violins swirl into a stew of acceptance that the protagonist’s dreams will remain forever out of reach on the horizon.

The closing track on Out of Time, “Me In Honey” is a melodic rocker in which yet another one of Michael Stipe’s lovelorn characters attempts to make sense of his life. Yet there seems to be not only hope, but glimpses of recognition, that to be head over heels or caught in honey, as the song would have it, is just as thrilling as it is daunting. The group once again enlisted the help of Kate Pierson to provide background vocals here, with her stirring vocals giving the song an added layer of sexiness.

This was the song that changed everything for R.E.M. In a mere 4 minutes and 28 seconds, the group went from being underground darlings to mainstream rock sensations. Despite some misguided grumblings from longtime fans who felt the group sold out by becoming successful with this track — a complete fallacy given how nontraditional of a pop hit it is — the general consensus was that the group had unveiled a masterpiece.

It helped that the accompanying video was a heavily rotated monster directed by Tarsem Singh that used imagery from Caravaggio and religious texts to convey its otherworldly mood. (Stipe’s frenetic dancing was pretty memorable too). The clip helped R.E.M. dominate the year’s MTV Video Awards, a ceremony at which Michael Stipe’s seemingly unending parade of T-shirts with political messages on them only got the band more attention.

But even with the airplay and marketing push that “Losing My Religion” received, it would have all been for naught if it wasn’t a great song to begin with. Beginning with Peter Buck’s mandolin strains and concluding with Stipe’s final tortured declaration of, “but that was just a dream, dream” the song is an absolute oddity about longing, heartbreak, and obsession that is still as striking as it was 25 years ago.

Twenty-five years ago, R.E.M. released Out of Time, which eventually sold over four million copies in the United States and transformed longtime college radio darlings into a mainstream concern. It was the album’s first single “Losing My Religion” that definitively turned the group to artistic and commercial leaders of the burgeoning alternative rock movement. Up until this point, the group’s singer Michael Stipe had directed their music videos, or had entrusted them to people rooted in the art world like Robert Longo, James Herbert and Jem Cohen. Stipe had also stated publicly that he would never lip sync in a video — a claim he backed up in every video during the band’s first ten years.

h the band and their label sensed that this was their potential crossover moment, they selected Tarsem Singh to direct “Losing my Religion.” Singh (credited as just Tarsem) was finishing up film school at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena while nearing the age of 30 and selling cars in the summer to afford tuition. He had previously directed only two videos for record labels — for Suzanne Vega and En Vogue — but the young director managed an artistic triumph. “Losing My Religion” would go on to win six MTV Video Music Awards, including Best Video and Best Direction as well as the Grammy for Best Short Form Video.

After “Losing My Religion” Singh would quickly depart from videos to produce commercials and visually stunning films including The Cell and Mirror Mirror. Here Singh tells the story of how the captivating and confounding video for “Losing My Religion” came to be.

Tarsem Singh: I had done a Suzanne Vega video [for “Tired of Sleeping”], I really liked the song and I wanted to do something in the style of the photographer [Josef] Koudelka. The Czech Republic was just opening up. My college professor at the time was from the Czech Republic and I told him, “You want to go there for a week? We can shoot this thing in the countryside. They don’t seem to have a working currency. We can sleep in a bus and do it.” He said, “OK.” That landed with the R.E.M. guys and Stipe was a fan of Koudelka. They approached me to see if I was interested in doing a music video.

The reason I only did [a small number of music videos] was I never really was a very good music video person. I’m quite the opposite from people like Mark Romanek and David Fincher. They always had a team of people and did it correctly. I never wrote [a treatment] for a song, ever. I would just have this idea and I would assume that when the right song comes along, I’ll do the music video. Later it kind of created not-so-friendly situations where bands that I love and adore would know that I liked their music and would send me a song. I would hear it and go, “That’s great.” Then I would spend some time and go, “Oh, it doesn’t fit into any of my ideas.” And everybody would say, “It’s supposed to be the other way around.”

For R.E.M., I had an idea. Then [Warner Bros.] asked me if I’d be writing it down and sending it. I said that was why I hadn’t done any videos since [“Tired of Sleeping”]. They said that [R.E.M.] live in Athens and I could go visit. I called my sister because I hadn’t been to Europe for so long and I was so excited I was going to see my family; then, of course, the day before, I find out it’s Athens, Georgia. But I said, “No problem,” because I’m in college and I’m getting paid to go somewhere.

I went and saw Stipe and the guys for probably a day and a half. All I wanted to see was where he stays, where he lives and what he does. Something was missing from the idea, one little piece. I spent a day with him, in the evening we went clubbing. I saw him dance and I thought, “That’s the missing element!”

He thought that I was procrastinating and not pitching the idea. When I was leaving the next day, he said, “When are you going to…?” I said, “I’m not supposed to tell anybody the idea, but if you want, I’ll try to explain it to you.” I told him there’s a story by Gabriel Marcía 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.

One of the things that happened at that particular time was that [R.E.M.] were in a bit of a tough situation. They were the darlings of everybody cool. Matt Mahurin had done a couple of videos with them that I adored. The problem was that Stipe had gone around saying that he would never lip sync. The thing that changed him was he saw the Sinead O’Connor video [for “Nothing Compares 2 U”]. It doesn’t have anything to do with what the song is about, you’re looking at a person’s face.

You have to understand my mentality was of an absolute student. You have no money, no nothing. My brother was working as a janitor, my girlfriend at the time was bussing tables. You’re literally doing that and somebody comes along and says, “Here’s 100 grand.” You’re like, “Fucking hell. We are going to change the world!”

We started shooting with the band, and I had a crane and all these things. Nothing was really working. I went to the bathroom and I was throwing up. I came out and I was behind the assistant director and I said, “What’s next?” He didn’t see it was me and he said, “Yeah, I wonder what’s next.” I think the AD was thinking that I was doing drugs. I don’t drink, smoke, never have. I wasn’t mad at him, so I said, “I wonder what’s next, too” I didn’t know what to do. Then I said to everyone, “I know what the problem is. Everything we have shot already is too pretentious.” I said that we should forget everything that we’d already done and just film Stipe dancing.

R.E.M; MTV; Music Awards; 1991

I like either Bollywood and Busby Berkeley or mystic-gone-crazy dancing. I don’t like half-assed choreography. I liked his thing because it was so spastic, it was so internalized, the way he danced. He danced and, in-between takes, I was jumping up with him. I just knew that was it. The next day when he came and saw me shooting all these things that looked so kitsch and so strange, he didn’t say a thing. He said, “All right, you know what you’re doing. Carry on.”

We had no idea what we had. We said we needed ten days for cutting. We cut it from nine in the morning until three [at night] the first day. We looked at it and we said, “It kind of seems to work, let’s come back and look at it tomorrow.” I went downstairs and I remember my car was gone, it was towed away. We were right back in the morning and I had one look at it and I said, “Hmm, I think it’s done.” We only had one day with it. My editor said, “What can we do?” I said, “Let’s call the studio guys and say, ‘Come and take a look at the work in progress.’ And if they go, ‘What the fuck, are you crazy?’ We’ll go, ‘Hey, we got nine days. This is shit, we’ll fix it.'”

So when they came in, they had one look at it and said, “It’s done, isn’t it?” We went, “Yeah! It’s done, it’s perfect.” Then they sent it to the band and the only note we had was there was a guy sitting on a chair and one of the angels looked funny. They said, “Can you change that angel up?” That was literally it. It came out and just caught fire.

[The MTV Video Music Awards] was pretty nuts. I had been selling cars and putting myself through school, suddenly I was doing jobs in Europe. I was loving all of that and in the middle of it, [the awards] came along. I used to work as a busboy at Bombay Palace [in Beverly Hills]. We went out there and were eating dinner before we went to the awards. The cook came out and somebody told him, “Hey, this guy is going to be on TV.” He said, “Never forget where you came from, put this turban on your head.” I’ve never in my life worn a turban, except for my brother’s wedding. It’s 10 times bigger than my head, and I ended up on the show. [After winning the first award] they asked me if I wanted to say something. I said, “Not really.” I can talk until the cows come home, but something like that, I don’t know what to say. We went up there four or five times. The last time, we had won so many awards, I thought maybe I should say something. As soon as I was about to speak, the music came on and just cut me off.

[R.E.M.] sent me [“Everybody Hurts“] which was really a massive hit, too. The only problem was, me being a jerk, I just had no ideas that fit the song. I wanted to shoot in this particular cathedral in San Gimignano that doesn’t have a roof. I went out there, we couldn’t get the permissions in time. The Museum in London, they would let us shoot there because they were building it and it didn’t have a roof, but I didn’t like that idea. Then I couldn’t make the schedule work.

Had we just done Michael Stipe dancing [for “Losing My Religion], that was so strong and powerful in itself. If I left it just Stipe dancing, I think it would’ve had the same amount of success. I remember, four months later, seeing them on Unplugged. I left him a message on his machine saying, “I wish I hadn’t done a thing. I wish you had just danced.” There is no way anybody could’ve stopped that thing from being the phenomenon that it was. If it was just him in that room, it would probably be a lot less dated than it is now. I look at that thing, and it’s the stuff that only the audacity of student-thinking would make. It’s so crappily, horrendously wonderful. All it needed was Stipe in front of a window with a band. He didn’t even need the window in Unplugged. He’s sitting on a bloody stool and he’s playing it and he’s singing and it’s phenomenal. They didn’t need any of this, it was just in the air.

Still the saddest thing that R.E.M. has ever recorded, “Country Feedback” is nothing short of shattering. More than just another somebody done somebody wrong song, this epic is an analysis of how it feels to be empty inside yet still filled with pain, rage, and sorrow. Here Stipe’s delivery alternates from a wounded hush in which he reflects on how everything from the 1970s self-help technique EST to physics were used to try to help resurrect a dead relationship. As all over the place as the lyrics are, what they represent perfectly is the scattered mindset of someone so consumed by loss. So when Stipe eventually and inevitably screams, “I need this,” you can’t help but reflect upon your own experiences with similar pain.

As you can see above, Michael Stipe refers to “Country Feedback” as his favorite song. In terms of real emotion, this one delivers like no other R.E.M. song before or after. So I more than agree with his sentiment.

Even though Out of Time marked the moment the hoi polloi embraced alternative culture, it wasn’t just a socio-cultural phenomenon – it’s a great album too. So even the old-school diehards who stigmatize the album as the beginning of the end of what they loved about R.E.M. couldn’t plausibly deny that it contained tunes every bit as arresting as what had come before. At the same time, countless new converts who had paid only casual attention to the band were drawn into the fold in greater numbers than ever before.

Part of it is thanks to the production, which didn’t differ drastically from that of R.E.M.’s previous album or two (Out of Time co-producer Scott Litt also helmed the board for both Document and 1988’s Green), but Out of Time simply nudged things along to the next logical step. R.E.M.’s sound had been growing bigger and bolder since the mid-’80s, so when tasteful string orchestrations were slapped onto seven of the album’s 11 tracks,

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