Out of Time was the album which catapulted an acclaimed but little-known (outside the US) band from Athens, Georgia into the ranks of global stardom. Having previously released six albums including their 1983 debut Murmur, R.E.M. had established strong musical credentials without achieving significant mainstream success. Their fifth and sixth efforts – Document and Green – reached number 10 and 12 respectively on the US album chart, and scraped into the top 30 in the UK, while Orange Crush had also given the band their only UK top 40 single, reaching number 28 in the summer of 1989.
Their seventh album, however, changed everything.
Out of Time has an acoustic – at times folksy, even baroque – sound distinct from any of R.E.M.’s other albums, making extensive use of acoustic guitars and more unusual instruments such as mandolins and organs. It is also perhaps the most wide-ranging musically, from the bouncy, summery sound of Shiny Happy People to the dark, melancholic ennui of Country Feedback and Low, which explore themes of deep emotional fatigue and failed relationships. Somewhere in between lies the iconic mandolin refrain of Losing My Religion, the swooping harmonies of Near Wild Heaven, and the country tones of Texarkana.
In the UK, Losing My Religion (number 19) and Shiny Happy People (number six) made the UK top 20 – both went top 10 in the US – while Near Wild Heaven and Radio Song gained top 30 placings. Each song, while strong individually, gains considerably from being heard in the context of the album as a whole.
Out of Time gave the band their first chart-topping album in both the US and UK, and by 1996 had achieved global sales of over 12 million units.
Six of R.E.M.’s seven albums since then have topped the UK album chart (five were top three in the US), including Out of Time‘s successor, Automatic for the People, which includes the stand-out track Everybody Hurts and remains their most commercially successful album to date.
Out of Time represents R.E.M. at the height of their creative powers. It is an album which simultaneously celebrates great joy while also speaking of deep loss and regret, and which reveals greater musical and lyrical depth every time you listen to it. It is simply phenomenal.
This could be the saddest dusk I’ve ever seen
Turn to a miracle, high alive
My mind is racing as it always will
My hand’s tired, my heart aches
I’m half a world away here
Half A World Away
Most of the entries in my ‘Classic Albums’ series bring to mind specific events in my life, but Out Of Time is an album I associate with an entire year: 1991 – twenty years ago this year. It was, it must be said, something of a rollercoaster period in my otherwise generally stable life, covering two-thirds of my second year and the beginning of my third year at university in Oxford. And specific lyrics from songs on the album seemed to sum up perfectly how I felt at certain times that year.
In terms of study, I was not exactly covering myself in glory. It didn’t help that I wasn’t exactly getting much support from my three tutors. One was fine, one was a new tutor who seemed to be more passionate about port than organic chemistry (he didn’t last very long), and let’s just say I didn’t see eye-to-eye with the last one, who had all the charm, compassion and interpersonal skills of the love child of Sepp Blatter and Gillian McKeith. On a really bad day.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t their fault I was having a miserable time of it. I hated my subject, didn’t possess the natural aptitude for it that many of my peers did, and quite frankly didn’t care enough to make a proper fist of it. I was intelligent enough but, having waltzed through school academically, I was neither persistent nor mature enough to cope with being in the middle to lower reaches of the pack. Consequently, I hated my studies with a vengeance.
There’s a feeling that’s gone
Something has gone wrong
And I don’t know how much longer I can take it
Near Wild Heaven
What I did care about was beer – I was a university student, what were you expecting? – and sports. It might be difficult to believe if you met me any time after 1991, but I was a half-decent athlete back then. I had been a very good shot-putter and a moderately good sprinter at school, and went on to play for the university at American football. I was a long way from being the best player, but I was good enough to make the team – and that felt brilliant. We trained or played three times a week, and I loved every minute of it.
It was in the Varsity match at Cambridge – a week or two before I bought Out of Time – where my sporting world fell apart. We were cruising to victory late on when I went down awkwardly and tore both the anterior and medial cruciate ligaments in my left knee. The injury left me on crutches for two months, and I subsequently underwent keyhole surgery and extensive physiotherapy to repair the damage and rebuild the wasted quadriceps muscles. I never played competitively again. I was gutted.
We’ve been through fake-a-breakdown
EST, psychics, f*** all
I wasn’t quite that bad, but after a summer spent hobbling around, having put on over a stone in weight, and without sports to take my mind off my depressing academic situation, it would be fair to say I was not in the most positive frame of mind when I returned to Oxford for my third year. But it was there and then that I met Heather, and more than 19 years later we are still together. Without wanting to stray too much into movie-of-the-week territory, suffice to say she has been my rock. Insert any lyric you like from Shiny Happy People here.)
Out of Time was my personal soundtrack to 1991 – an album full of giddy highs and stultifying lows but one which, with the equanimity that the passage of time brings, I ultimately look back on with some fondness.
The B-52s’ Kate Pierson guests on vocals on three tracks, most famously Shiny Happy People. Both The B-52s and R.E.M. hail from Athens, Georgia.
The band decided on the name R.E.M. after flipping randomly through the dictionary.
Michael Stipe is the godfather of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love‘s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain.
1. Radio Song
2. Losing My Religion
4. Near Wild Heaven
6. Shiny Happy People
8. Half A World Away
10. Country Feedback
11. Me In Honey
#5: Out of Time – R.E.M.