Released: March 12, 1991
It’s nearly impossible to discuss R.E.M.’s ascent from enigmatic indie-rockers to stadium-filling pop stars without mentioning the band’s seventh album, Out Of Time, and the brooding, minor-key anthem “Losing My Religion.” The band had long conquered the college-rock landscape, but everything changed in 1991. Thanks to the universal embracing of the unconventional single by radio (as well as round-the-clock play on MTV), R.E.M. finally crossed over into pop-culture consciousness. And while its political significance survives as little more than a footnote*, Out Of Time opened the kind of doors for R.E.M. that would have seemed like an impossibility only a few years earlier.
While the aptly titled, album-opening “Radio Song” opens with a vintage slice of melancholic R.E.M., the song’s mood is quickly tilted on its side as the band confidently launches into a funk-laced backbeat. Even decades later, the song is one of the band’s more quirky moments; a distinction helped in no small part by the inclusion of a hamfisted rhyme courtesy of hip-hop legend KRS-One. It’s tempting to dismiss the song as a mess, but the whole thing manages to work despite itself.
A novel could be written on the importance and impact of the album’s next track, the transcendent ode to innocence lost that is “Losing My Religion.” Suffice it to say that the song’s enduring popularity is no mere accident. With its foundation of somber mandolin chords and introspective lyrics, “Losing My Religion” is one of those touchstone gems that has come to define an entire generation. In Fact, Out Of Time’s strength lies in the way R.E.M. balanced country-tinged numbers like the moody “Low,” and the grief-stricken “Country Feedback” with the familiar upbeat jangle-pop (“Near Wild Heaven,” “Belong,” “Texarkana”) that marked the group’s I.R.S. years.
While the band has done its best to distance itself from the uber-cheerful anthem “Shiny Happy People” (Stipe famously loathes the song**), the track provides a glimmer of self-effacing humor for what is an otherwise ultra-serious collection of tunes. Meanwhile, the enchanting “Me In Honey” (featuring the last of three cameos from the B52’s Kate Pierson) is an incredibly effective album closer, highlighting one of Stipe’s best vocal performances to date.
Looking back on R.E.M.’s career, Out Of Time is perhaps best viewed as the perfect bridge between the anthemic arena rock of its predecessor (Green) and the brooding focus of the band’s magnum opus, Automatic For The People. For some, Out Of Time was the final nail in the coffin of their favorite indie-rock band. For others, it marked the first time they heard R.E.M. on the radio. But whether it was a new beginning or merely the beginning of the end, it’s hard to argue with the resonating impact of Out Of Time, a record that was, above all else, a critical turning point for R.E.M.
*Legend has it that the band opted for the eco-unfriendly ‘longbox’ packaging as a means to entice record-buyers into signing the included ‘rock-the-vote’ petition. A bill to ease restrictions on voter registration was eventually passed and in turn, encouraged a new, younger generation to get out and vote.
**Despite peaking at 10 on the Billboard Top 100 chart, the band went so far as not to include “Shiny Happy People” on their 2003 Greatest Hits package, In Time.