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How R.E.M. Invented the Nineties With ‘Out of Time’

Rob Sheffield looks back at R.E.M.'s 1991 classic, and how it presaged the entire decade to come.

Rolling Stone

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 Rob Sheffield pays tribute to R.E.M.'s 'Out of Time,' the album that saved Nineties rock. Steve Rapport/Getty Images 

In 1991, R.E.M. dropped an album called Out of Time — and nobody was prepared for it. “Losing My Religion,” “Half a World Away,” “Country Feedback,” “Near Wild Heaven” — these were the most soulful, gorgeous songs the boys from Athens G-A had ever written. This comeback changed everything about the R.E.M. story, but it also presaged the whole decade to come. They basically invented the Nineties with this album. It was a total shock, after a few years when they sounded like bored rock pros going through the motions. “Yeah, I guess I jangled for a while,” Peter Buck told Rolling Stone at the time. “I can write that kind of stuff in my sleep. I can write ‘Driver 8’ every day of the week. We all can.”

If R.E.M. broke up in 1989 instead of making this album, they’d be revered today like the Smiths or the Pixies — a band that changed the world with a handful of classics. But instead, they were just getting started. Out of Time kicked off their glorious four-album Nineties run, which ended up crushing anything they’d done in the Eighties. Out of Time blew up into their first Number One album — definitely a sign that times were changing.

R.E.M. reinvented themselves as space-folk voyagers, with Peter Buck playing mandolin and Michael Stipe brooding in “Losing My Religion.” The music crashed into new emotional territory, with Stipe’s most passionate vocals — he called it “an album of love songs.” As he told Rolling Stone, “Love songs are one thing I’ve never tackled. At least upfront love songs. It was a big step.”

R.E.M. were kicking off a pivotal year for the kids who got a name that year: Gen X. Douglas Coupland published his classic Generation X; every single house party in the summer of 1991 turned into a late-night debate about that novel. Also that summer, Richard Linklater’s debut feature film got released nationwide. It was called Slacker. Both were about downwardly mobile young people off the grid: no cash, no careers, no clout. Perry Farrell did the first Lollapalooza tour, with the crazy premise of a festival with no boomers or metal. But the industry was shocked to learn there was a new young audience out there fiending for this. It was a year full of epochal cultural watersheds, for a generation the media had already written off as “twenty-something” nobodies.

And music was right at the heart of it, with R.E.M. leading the charge. These guys had spent the Eighties showing how to go your own way, making your own kind of art, without conforming to anyone else’s rules. A whole generation of artists had grown up learning from them, and now they were walking through the doors R.E.M. had helped open up. Nirvana dropped Nevermind. Pavement dropped Perfect Sound Forever. Bikini Kill dropped Revolution Girl Style Now! It was “The Year Punk Broke,” as the documentary put it.

“It’s not a rock album,” Michael Stipe told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke. “After the Green tour, the other guys just got really tired of playing their own instruments. So they all jumped on the wrong instruments.” Everybody in the band was stretching out. As bassist Mike Mills explained, “We wrote a lot of the songs with me on organ, Bill [Berry] on bass, and Peter on guitar or mandolin. That’s why they’re so different from the ones on other albums.” Mills sings lead on two of the highlights, “Near Wild Heaven” and “Texarkana.”

Peter Buck, once one of rock’s most proudly incompetent guitarists, had actually learned to play, but he found that boring, so he turned to an instrument he couldn’t play, the mandolin. Naturally, that became the breakout hit. “Losing My Religion” was all over radio and MTV by Christmas 1990, a mission statement for the band’s new expansive sound.

They got a little help from their friends: B-52s chanteuse Kate Pierson, New Orleans jazz sax man Kidd Jordan, Boogie Down Productions’ KRS-One. Most crucially, there was fifth member Peter Holsapple, the indie-pop legend from the dBs, who joined the Green tour on guitar and keyboards. On that tour, he’d been part of the band when they debuted “Low” and “Belong” onstage. He brought a whole new range of lush textures to Out of Time. The songs were full of weird flourishes — Mills’ harpsichord on “Half a World Away,” John Keane’s pedal steel on “Country Feedback,” Stipe’s melodica on the Eno-as–Martin Denny reverie “Endgame.”

Out of Time is one of those classics like Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses, or Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, where there’s only one terrible song on an otherwise flawless album—and it’s the first song. “Radio Song” was a real groaner — bitching about the radio, so Eighties — with neither the band nor KRS-One in top form. But the rest of Out of Time never lets up.

Like all R.E.M. albums, except more so, Out of Time inspired fans to mind-read the hell out of Stipe’s lyrics. As he once wrote on Matthew Perpetua’s site Fluxblog, “Please don’t analyze them, there’s nothing but feeling there. Sing along and make it up, that’s what I still do.” He called “Country Feedback” “the final sentence at the end of a particularly bad relationship.” “Low” had the blunt confession, “I skipped the part about love/It seemed so shallow.” But anyone could hear the pain in his voice, even if they didn’t follow all his verbal feints. (“Like a hurt, lost, and blinded foal, foal” — great line, right? Lyric transcriptions often claim it’s “fool,” but trust your ears.)

OK, time to talk about the elephant in the room. The shiny, happy elephant. Controversial but correct take: “Shiny Happy People” is a great song. It made a clever change-of-pace album track, and nobody was mad at it until it got played to death on the radio. It was fun to hear on American Top 40, with Casey Kasem gushing, “It’s a tribute to the kind of people who can brighten your day!” And the video is comedy gold just for how miserable Buck looks — tough to think of another rock star so existentially defeated in his own video. But that just enhances the song. That’s the whole point of “Shiny Happy People” — it’s really about Surly Petty Bastards trying to take a chance and step outside their negative-creep comfort zones.

Kate Pierson didn’t just add her vocals — she seemed like a guiding spirit, radiating all the B-52s’ benign Day-Glo warmth, with Stipe going into Fred Schneider mode.  As Stipe told Fluxblog, “I really wanted it to be happy, but like the Monkees or the Banana Splits happy … fruity happy like fruit striped gum. When we did the video Kate showed up really dolled up and she looked supergreat, but we had to amp it all up to kind of match her. I went home and got all my yellow green clothes and the dance got a little sillier.”

R.E.M. decided not to tour behind Out of Time, which turned out to be one of the best decisions of their lives. For one thing, it meant they were stuck together in Athens writing the songs that became their best album, Automatic for the People. It also meant that everybody tuned in to see their MTV Unplugged, their only proper live gig of the year, filmed on April 10th. It was a huge legend-making moment, showcasing the five-man lineup with Holsapple, way more relaxed and powerful than their recent tours. They played stripped-down versions of “Half a World Away,” “Low,” “Belong,” and “Endgame,” as well as oldies like “Fall on Me” and “Perfect Circle.” At MTV’s request, they also did a wonderful slop through “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine).” Anyone who watched was guaranteed to come away an R.E.M. fan.

The final song is “Me in Honey,” and it’s basically the sequel to “Shiny Happy People,” with Kate Pierson back on vocals. Stipe’s in love with one of those shiny happy types, but he feels too “ugly and mean,” and he fears he can’t live up to this SHP’s love. So he tries to warn his lover away, afraid they’ll get corrupted by his doom and gloom: “It seems a shame to waste your time on meeeee!” (As Peter Holsapple sang on a great dBs song, “I can understand why you want a better man/But why do you wanna make him out of me?”) But this SHP’s sweetness rubs off on him, until he realizes he’s got some honey of his own in his soul.

Stipe and Pierson blend their voices over the album’s most basic R.E.M. combo — Bill on drums, Mike on bass, Buck on guitar — but it’s a groove that seems to just keep on rolling even when the music fades out. And in a way, it did — Kurt Cobain picked up the tale a couple years later with “All Apologies,” with a similar guitar riff and a similar love story. Like so many R.E.M. fans then and now, Kurt listened to Out of Time and heard himself in it. It’s still an album that invites you to hear your own story in the music — and that’s why it sounds so fresh and vital today.

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This post originally appeared on Rolling Stone and was published February 1, 2024. This article is republished here with permission.

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