What Was the B.F.D. About R.E.M.?

    Issue 140

    My neighbor is a generation younger than me. I’ll call him Trent. Like everyone else in my neighborhood, Trent and his wife are spending part of the pandemic cleaning out their house. Because Trent long ago abandoned music in its physical form, this decluttering included three large shopping bags of abandoned CDs. Trent generously handed them off to me.

    I have spent many happy hours sorting them to keep or sell and listening to old friends and unfamiliar music. There on my dining-room table I saw Trent’s teenage years and early adulthood: Nine Inch Nails, Guns N’Roses, the White Stripes, Prince, Prodigy, Eminem, Green Day, Powerman 5000. Because Trent is a musical omnivore, there were also albums from Al Green, Frank Sinatra, Etta James, and Marvin Gaye. (That last one was distributed through Nordstrom’s. You can see why I changed Trent’s name.) And I found a 1980s holdover in this mass of music from the turn of the century: R.E.M.’s Out of Time.

    Out of Time was released in 1991, but R.E.M. were kings of the 1980s, and Out of Time sounds like an ’80s record. It’s difficult to think of a band that dominated its decade the way R.E.M. dominated the ’80s. No, wait, it’s not difficult at all: U2, for the same decade. Both bands commanded loyal followings and displayed zero sense of humor. U2’s audience was larger; R.E.M.’s was fanatical.

    Here are the three most common reactions to R.E.M.’s music:

    1. You’re a true R.E.M. fan if you lined up at Tower Records the night before the 1987 release of Dead Letter Office, a dumpster full of songs the band forgot, songs the band was too drunk to remember, songs the band didn’t like, and I’m quoting from their own liner notes.
    2. You’re everyone else if you hear an R.E.M. song and think, “Oh, that’s R.E.M.”
    3. You’re my editor from 30 years ago if I say “R.E.M.” and you say “Who?” This person was also surprised to learn that the boys in U2 are Irish.

    By now you’re thinking that R.E.M. makes me hurl and that when I found that CD in its paper bag under a stack of Nine Inch Nails bootlegs I acted as if I’d whacked my big toe on an old chair. Not so. Though I was already a grown man and a somewhat functional adult when I heard my first R.E.M. song, “Radio Free Europe,” from their 1983 debut, Murmur, I immediately made room in my heart for R.E.M. (A small room.) As the decade rolled on, I found that many R.E.M songs (“Cuyahoga,” “Superman,” “Can’t Get There From Here,” “Pop Song 89”) had become part of the soundtrack of my life. I may not seek these songs out, but I’m not sorry when they find me. This is a heckuva of an accomplishment for a band that sounded pretty much the same from 1983 until their drummer, Bill Berry, retired for health reasons in 1998.


    R.E.M., 2003. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Stefano.

    R.E.M., 2003. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Stefano.


    So Did I Like It Or Not?

    Out of Time is a typical R.E.M. offering. It’s not their best album; that would be Life’s Rich Pageant. (Who names a pop album Life’s Rich Pageant? Revolver, Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud, The Dark Side of the Moon, Born to Run, Broken English, Beauty and the Beat, Pretty Hate Machine, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and Good Girl Gone Bad are names for pop albums. Life’s Rich Pageant is the name of a TV show about how to cook fish.)

    Out of Time is nowhere near R.E.M.’s worst album, either. It features “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People,” two tunes you can’t dislodge from your brain. I want to listen to half the songs and skip the other half – also typical.


    By 1991, Michael Stipe had learned to enunciate his words – ironically, just in time to confront Nirvana’s crunching Nevermind, on which Kurt Cobain slurred everything that left his mouth. It’s clear to me that Out of Time is R.E.M.’s attempt to remain relevant. The album is loaded with extra instruments, including a harpsichord, which only works if you’re living inside a Jane Austen novel. The rapper KRS-One introduces the opener, “Radio Song,” to less effect than Cheech & Chong’s brief appearance on Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. The B-52’s’ Kate Pierson drops by to sing the “Shiny Happy People” chorus. That’s all? Where’s the duet?

    Two things still impress me about Out of Time. The first is that the closing track, “Me in Honey,” is so good. (Ms. Pierson added some “whoas.”) Most pop albums end because the band runs out of gas. The final tracks are like no runs, no hits, no one left on base in the bottom of the ninth. “Me in Honey” is four minutes long, which is about a minute too much, as the guitar line is just a loop. But like the album itself, it’s a solid song with some interesting, if opaque, songwriting.


    The second – the biggest – thing that impresses me about Out of Time is that R.E.M. may have entered the studio in 1991 without a flicker of inspiration, but they carried on anyway. And that’s my point. When you’re an artist, you show up for work every day, even if all you have going for you is your craft.

    Although Out of Time was steamrollered by the onset of grunge and the release of U2’s last good album, Achtung Baby, it remains a respectable outing that will not bring shame to your record collection. It’s better than Grand Funk Railroad’s On Time or the Mavericks’ In Time, though several laps behind Dave Brubeck’s Time Out.

    I’ll report on more finds from the chaos of Trent’s early years after I work my way through all these NIN boots.


    Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/CityFeedback.

    2 comments on “What Was the B.F.D. About R.E.M.?”

    1. When “Out of Time” was released, Stereo Review was still in publication. I recall Steve Simels, the old guard, paterfamilias of the magazine’s rock criticism staff, said in his monthly review that it should have been named “Out of Ideas.” And then, the following February, the magazine included it in their “Records of the Year” awards. So much for editorial consistency.

      As for myself, I would probably say I’m a “former fan.” I dearly loved everything about their first 4 primary albums (Murmur, Reckoning, Fables and Life’s), and what I managed to hear of their EPs and other releases of that era, but in my opinion their output became extremely spotty immediately following L’sRP. It’s rare that I care to sit through any subsequent album in one sitting, and the later in their career, the less I feel the urge to do so. I’m not sure why the change, and how much of it was them and how much me. Maybe it was that in later years, the need for their music’s existence had declined somewhat. Or maybe the decline was in my need to hear it. All I can say for sure is that their recordings no longer spoke to me the way they used to. And frankly, I miss that.

    2. Craig: You’ve made an excellent point. What do we do when a band stops speaking to us? When the band has changed, or the change was within us? For example, I eventually found less and less to listen to in Bruce Springsteen’s music — his work since Tunnel of Love has not excited me, and the older albums seem muted, as if in listening to them I’m replaying an old role. It’s been a long time since I dreamed of steppin’ out over the line. I really miss that. But R.E.M. never meant as much to me as Springsteen; I can appreciate Out of Time more today than I did in 1991. If that makes sense.

      I love the sobriquet “Out of Ideas.” Another reviewer once called Men Without Hats “Men Without Ideas.”

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