R.E.M. – Out Of Time
Released March 12th, 1991 on Warner Bros.
Produced by Scott Litt and R.E.M.
Peaked at #1 US, #1 UK
“Losing My Religion” (#4 US, #19 UK)
“Shiny Happy People” (#10 US, #6 UK)
“Near Wild Heaven” (#27 UK)
“Radio Song” (#28 UK)
By the time R.E.M. was finished touring behind Green, their major label debut, they were thoroughly sick of big arena-level electric guitars. They spent nearly a year criss-crossing the globe, capping it off with a final performance that saw them play Murmur beginning to end, followed by Green beginning to end. This, on top of the nearly endless touring they had been doing during the eight years since releasing Murmur in the first place led the band to just take a few months to regroup and rethink where they wanted the band to go next. Peter Buck, whose signature chiming guitar riffs inspired an entire generation of alt songwriters, found himself sick of the guitar. He took up the mandolin as a way to refresh his head, and the change in instrumentation ended up pushing the band in a whole new direction. That mandolin can be most prominently heard in the main riff to “Losing My Religion”, the band’s biggest hit, but also provides texture and support to a number of other songs on here. It wasn’t just the mandolin, though; the band embraced string arrangements, harpsichord, pedal steel, and organ. It was R.E.M., but bigger: a worldly sound to match their global success. “Half The World” might have been a slog, but for the string section bringing it to a much more thrilling level; the same goes for the organ that suffuses “Low” with a hopeful light among its dark musings and the odd sustained feedback/pedal steel combo that gives “Country Feedback” its name. “Texarkana” is possibly the most underrated song in the band’s entire catalog, and one that is most easily recognizable as an “R.E.M. song” given their back catalog.
They aren’t all zingers, though. “Radio Song”, which opens up the album, has a lumbering funk to it that seems out of step with the rest of the album; the presence of KRS-One doesn’t help this feeling of disconnect, although he acquits himself well. Worse is “Shiny Happy People”, a bubblegum pop song that counts among one of the three or four worst war crimes committed in 1991. It went inexplicably to #10, proving of course that the masses will suck up pretty much anything that gets pushed at them from a major label. Michael Stipe has since apologized for the song, but apologies can only go so far.
One other aspect of Out Of Time that needs to be remembered on its 30th anniversary is its role in politics. Back in 1989-1991 CDs, which were just becoming affordable and normal for the average consumers, were packaged in things called longboxes. Longboxes were 12″ cardboard packaging for CDs that were designed to fit the same display space as vinyl records. They were wasteful as hell and became obsolete by the mid-90s, when stores just replaced the vinyl displays with racks that were meant for CDs. Knowing the band had some serious views on politics (Green, for example, was released on election day 1988 in the United States), a Warner Bros. exec proposed to replace the wasted space on the back of the Out Of Time longbox with a petition that urged the purchaser to support Rock The Vote, who at the time were pushing for the Motor Voter Act which would allow citizens to register to vote through their local DMV. Within three weeks of the album’s release 10,000 such petitions were delivered to the U.S. Senate, with more coming in every week. Voter registration is a huge deal in U.S. elections. Illinois was a solid Republican state until a young community organizer on Chicago’s South Side named Barack Obama spearheaded a registration campaign that signed up 100,000 new voters for the 1992 election; Illinois has been a solid Democratic state ever since. Stacey Abrams did a very similar thing in Georgia in the 2020 election. The Motor Voter Act petitions worked; President Clinton signed the bill into law in 1993 and many political commentators discussed the Out Of Time longbox petition as having played a key role in its passing.