If there was any doubt R.E.M. was moving closer and closer to mainstream success with each album, that doubt was erased with the release of “Out of Time”. Two massively successful hit singles lifted them fully on the perch of most successful bands in the rock-pop world, sitting side by side with U2. I’ve given up on finding the secret undiscovered gem (for me) R.E.M. album, as they only get more familiar and mainstream from here, but like with each R.E.M. album, there are moments of greatness along with some odd sidesteps.
The record opens with one of the later singles on the album, “Radio Song”, featuring rapper KRS-One as the hype voice and backing vocal throughout the track. Even with that collaboration, it sounds like a traditional R.E.M. song and even has a similar opening chord sequence to “Nightswimming”, which comes on their next album. It is one of my favorites on this record. “Losing My Religion” has to be the biggest commercial success the band ever released, and I have always loved the lyrics, vocals, and driving rhythm from the mandolin on this song. It may be a bit worn from overplay fatigue, but to this day I still love this song.
“Low” is one of those sidesteps that wanders and really doesn’t go anywhere, but another really upbeat tune comes on “Near Wild Heaven”, featuring Mike Mills on lead vocals. “Endgame” is a quirky song that is almost all instrumental, but it gives Peter Buck a spotlight moment on their busy stage.
Oddly enough, one of their most successful and oddly ironic tracks is the seemingly upbeat tune “Shiny Happy People”, featuring Kate Pierson from the B-52’s, from their same hometown of Athens, Georgia. Mike Mills also adds some three-part vocals during the chorus. Even if it seems like an unusually joyous track, it is a satirical take on the overt propaganda of the Chinese government after their authoritative crushing of resistance of protests in Tiananmen Square. Over time this interpretation faded into the background, and bizarre outlets emerged such as Sesame Street (where R.E.M. performed “Furry Happy Monsters” with the Muppets, complete with a Kate Pierson look-alike Muppet) and the TV show Friends, where this song was originally planned as the theme song before being replaced by “I’ll Be There for You” by the Rembrandts. Accepted by the general public as an overly sweet song of happiness, Michael Stipe withdrew his affection for the song and seemingly regretted its production and performance.
The rest of the album has more of a country feel to it, while retaining that jangly guitar feel, and Kate Pierson makes another appearance on the last track, “Me In Honey”. Even with the two most overtly commercial and successful singles the band ever released, the album stays true to the good and bad of previous R.E.M. albums. At their very best, they were highly insightful, thoughtful and deliberate in their delivery of alternative rock; at their worst they were scattered and lacking some strong allure in the hooks of their tracks.