Thursday, February 25, 2016

Out of Time

I think a lot of this is oversold hogwash:

R.E.M. released its seventh studio album, “Out of Time,” in March 1991, roughly six months before Nirvana unleashed “Nevermind.” The record was an obvious musical evolution from 1988’s “Green,” as it deemphasized electric guitars, featured a bevy of guest stars (rapper KRS-One and Kate Pierson of the B-52’s, along with session musicians) and amplified a broad array of instruments.

Spidery mandolin drives “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M.’s biggest chart hit to date (and, as it turns out, overall), while harpsichord adds a longing tint to “Half a World Away” and steel guitar bends through “Texarkana.” Merry circus organ exacerbates the exuberance of “Shiny Happy People,” while layers of gooey harmonies and winsome piano ensure “Near Wild Heaven” channels the Beach Boys. Saxophones, clarinet, congas, melodica and even flugelhorn pop up elsewhere to cement the album’s orchestral-pop sheen. “Out of Time” still sounds like nothing else in R.E.M.’s catalog.

Yet the album almost became more notable because it was reported to be full of love songs. “I’ve always despised love songs, so I had to try them,” vocalist Michael Stipe told the New York Times, while also stressing that “nothing on the record is autobiographical. If I ever write an autobiographical record, I’ll make it very obvious. I’m trying to do something that Tom Waits and Peter Gabriel do really well, which is to write about things I may or may not have experienced from different points of view.” In theory, the idea that R.E.M.—a band of romantics who nevertheless had largely eschewed such an obvious, common musical trope—decided to write love songs was intriguing and provocative.

The reality was more nuanced than that, of course. In practice, “Out of Time” moves beyond the subtle (and misunderstood) romantic scorn permeating R.E.M.’s 1987 hit “The One I Love”: The album is an attempt to capture and document the specific, different ways people could love and be loved. “I’ve written love songs, but they were pretty obscure and oblique,” Stipe told Spin in 1991. “These songs deal with every kind of love — except maybe love of country.” In fact, “Out of Time” is more a psychological dissection of love’s various forms—whether extant, extinct or somewhere in between.

“Near Wild Heaven” describes a relationship that’s on its last legs and teetering on the edge of breaking apart, while the aching “Half a World Away” captures the longing sewn into the fabric of a long-distance relationship. “Losing My Religion,” meanwhile, describes an uneasy scenario when love is uncertain—someone is walking on eggshells and anguished due to the unpredictable (and potentially unkind) behavior of a partner.

This is the album that Green gave birth to--an indulgent mix of overcooked songs that are as embarrassing to listen to now as it was then. And I sort of liked it when it came out. Grunge was never an option for me in the 1990s because, hello, it was always a ridiculous jaunt through 70s nostalgia.

Out of Time, as an album, is a mess. You can argue that it's an album they outsourced. It's an album that contains the single biggest mistake of their entire career--Shiny Happy People. It's got a rap song on it. Well, so did Roll the Bones, people. There is nothing spontaneous here--it's overcooked and made to sound great on television. This is exactly what happens when someone has too much time, money, and a bunch of exotic instruments to mess around with. This is the album where art divorced itself from immediacy and ended up getting run over by commerce. 

I just gave up on R.E.M. in 1996. They should have broken up after touring the world behind Green. We'd have a vastly different view of the band and their legacy if they had gone their separate ways (and it would make it easier to swallow the overindulgence that was the Green album, which is almost indistinguishable from Out of Time in that they both ended up being loaded with filler and overwrought personalization). Individually, all of the members of R.E.M.have been capable of great things, and so this is not a knock on them personally. What you can knock is how they embraced their corporate music label ownership, walled themselves off from their fans by not touring for four years, and courting favor with MTV. 

The recent MTV documentary about how the music channel and the band entered into some sort of friendly symbiotic relationship has done more to destroy their legacy than a string of poor albums did. The five album punch of Murmur, Reckoning, Fables, Pageant and Document stands as one of the greatest achievements in all of independent music. Nobody has five stronger, tougher, more innovative albums than that. Nobody meant more than R.E.M. in the 1980s. They became the face of sincere, meaningful independent music. And then they fucked it all up.

The back nine of their catalog reads like something out of a horror film. Do you know what it's like to walk through a store and hear Man in the Moon? Remember when Stipe sang about being on talk shows? Do you know how sad it is to sit there and watch the band make nice with Tabitha Soren? Did you catch their tribute to Kurt Cobain, who betrayed everything about independent music and basic artistry by checking out on drugs and blowing through shitty songs? Does anything on Reveal sound like it matters? What the hell were they thinking when they dumped their last album into the indifferent marketplace of ideas and then didn't even bother touring behind it?

Out of Time does not hold up very well. Pieces like this are meant to reassess things that were commercially successful. Do you know what you'll find if you can locate a used music store or a pawnshop that still carries CDs? A butt ton of R.E.M. CDs from this erea. It had no staying power as a statement of the times. And you can prove that by noting that it won three Grammys. How many important, really significant albums have actually won Grammys? I can't think of any, but, remember--I'm biased.

Any discussion of R.E.M.'s legacy is going to bring up a lot of my own baggage, so, you know, there's that. But the best thing you can say about Out of Time is that it wasn't as embarrassing as Up.


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