Yesterday, R.E.M. released the 25th anniversary reissue of their breakthrough album, Out of Time. The album went multiplatinum, selling 18 million copies worldwide, and garnered R.E.M. three Grammy awards – two for the single “Losing My Religion.”
It’s hard to rank R.E.M. albums – all are good, some are great, but at least through Automatic for the People they were so consistent. But their golden age started with Green, the predecessor to Out of Time and the first album with Warner Brothers. They became more accessible to radio – Michael Stipe’s lyrics were actually decipherable, and they began experimenting with other instruments – the mandolin in particular.
“We felt that we were writing really good songs and that whatever we did was going to be cool,” Mike Mills told Garden and Gun. “One thing we did do at that point was make a conscious decision not to write any more R.E.M. songs.”
The result on Out of Time was a more quiet, radio-friendly R.E.M. Their earlier material had played around with Byrds-type folk-rock, but Out of Time was more eclectic, as if R.E.M. could get any more eclectic. They got Kate Pierson of the B-52s to lend vocals to two songs – a first for the group to expand their collaboration – and got rapper KRS-One to rap on the sometimes beautiful “Radio Song.”
There are many highlights on this album, from the aforementioned “Radio Song” to the achingly sweet “Half a World Away.” “Shiny Happy People” is pure bubble gum and is overshadowed by Pierson’s other collaboration, “Me in Honey,” which features a guitar riff from Peter Buck that anchors the entire song. “Near Wild Heaven,” one of two Mike Mills songs on the album, is pure pop – not as bubblegum as “Stand” or “Shiny Happy People,” but instantly catchy, complete with Beach-Boys style backup vocals from Stipe.
But “Losing My Religion” was a smash, a milestone from the group that has since defined them, for better or for worse. Moody and introspective, featuring Buck’s mandolin, it cannot be overstated what an important song this was not only to R.E.M. but to pop music in general. On the cusp of grunge, R.E.M. wrote the last important pop song; after grunge took over, pop music essentially died; grunge would give way to hip-hop, and pop music was left to radio-friendly anomalies such as “Call Me Maybe” and “Shake it Off.”
R.E.M. would follow up Out of Time with another smash, Automatic for the People, before their first disappointment, Monster. Out of Time is R.E.M. at their creative peak; the 25th anniversary reissue gives a hint of the songwriting process with unreleased demos. Buy it and learn how one of the most important albums of the 1990s was made.