Part of me died inside upon first witnessing Michael Stipe lip-syncing in the ‘Losing My Religion‘ video, something the enigmatic R.E.M. frontman previously vowed never to do. That personal betrayal marked the beginning of the end for me and a quartet whose back-catalogue soundtracked my student life. To add insult to injury, their signature track became further sullied a few years later by some idiot on Stars in Their Eyes.
R.E.M. was my fucking band, discovered watching The Party Animal, a derivative straight-to-video Stateside college romp whose sole saving grace was an incongruously good soundtrack. We’re talking Buzzcocks 7” classics and the original Hib-Tone release of the red-raw R.E.M. cracker ‘Radio Free Europe’. Further exploration of the latter quickly led to I.R.S. best-of Eponymous, a window into an enchanting blend of new wave, Byrdsy twang and Americana, leaving me wondering if I should actually like this stuff at all. Maintaining peerless quality control on Green, their exquisite Warner debut, follow-up Out of Time, released 30 years ago this month, gave R.E.M. their passe-partout into the big time.
Having not enjoyed Out of Time as nature intended since the early-nineties, opener ‘Radio Song’ now smacks of a college-rock band trying to get down with the rap kids by shoehorning a KRS-One into their record. Maybe I’m being harsh and it’s certainly no slight on the supremely influential co-founder of Boogie Down Productions, and ultimately forgivable if Stipe, Mills, Buck and Berry simply wanted more of their fans to explore hip-hop.
Unlike any previous R.E.M. record, the two main singles dominate, their label seemingly hellbent on cashing in on their charges’ super-cool status. The inclusion of fellow Athenian Kate Pierson feels like more than a coincidence, one of the most recognisable faces in MTV-land at the time thanks to the ubiquitous ‘Roam’ and ‘Love Shack’. Thankfully the beehived B52’s formidable contributions on mock-evangelical ‘Shiny Happy People’, 60s throwback ‘Near Wild Heaven’, not forgetting the fine rootsy barroom stomp of closer ‘Me In Honey’, deliver some of the record’s more enduring moments, despite Denis Leary’s detractions. Also, Mills’ increased profile with 2 lead vocals is perhaps the band’s attempt to diffuse some of the rapidly increasing limelight from Stipe’s rising star.
The sublime obliqueness of Green’s many hidden corners, joyous pop one minute, enchanting dense undergrowth the next was a trick the quartet tried to repeat on ‘Out Of Time’ with mixed results. ‘Half a World Away’ still charms although ‘Endgame’ seems half-baked. ‘Country Feedback’ could be mistaken for a Neil Young cast-off.
So 30 years on, ‘Out of Time’ has aged well in places but like many of their peers, R.E.M.’s rawer material is ostensibly more timeless. Favourite album reacquaintances should be akin to eating a bowl of cornflakes for the first time in a while. Alas, I didn’t quite get that with ‘Out of Time’, revisiting this record felt like meeting up with an ex. Probably not my go-to R.E.M. record of choice.
Words by Michael Price
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