Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Sadly Mediocre Auditory Spectacle That Puts R.E.M. Out Of Time.

The Good: Decent instrumentals, Moments of lyrics
The Bad: Unchallenging or annoying vocals, virtually all of the best songs are available elsewhere
The Basics: After twenty listens, Out Of Time holds up poorly as an album, despite having great instrumental diversity.

If I were not quite so lazy right now, I would actually bother to look it up. I am in the process of a big move and I have been falling a little behind on my reviews for the month. As a result, I have been listening to the same three R.E.M. c.d.s over and over and over again - mostly in the car - and beginning to loathe one of them. The thing is, I can't remember if it is Out Of Time - which had "Losing My Religion" - or Automatic For The People - which had "Man On The Moon" - which was the best-selling R.E.M. album. For sure, though, Automatic For The People is a vastly superior album. Unfortunately, it is Out Of Time which has been in heavy rotation on my player the last few days.

As I progress through the library of R.E.M. albums, I have been reminded of my standard for recommending or not for an album; if all of the best tracks are on the greatest hits album, I will not recommend it. Well, R.E.M. has a pretty kick-butt "Best Of" album with tracks that are on Out Of Time. It is notably absent "Shiny Happy People." Today, I find myself in an intriguing position of finding that not all of the best songs on Out Of Time are on In Time - The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 – 2003 but that it is not worth shelling out for the album despite this.

With eleven tracks clocking in at 44:11, Out Of Time is a fairly distinct R.E.M. album that presents a rather straightforward pop-rock album for listeners of R.E.M. Rather problematically, it is as bland vocally as it is musically intriguing, with lyrics split right down the middle. Out Of Time is attributed to the R.E.M. quartet as it appeared in 1991 when the album was released with additional talent including Bertis E. Downs, IV and W. Jefferson Holt. Downs is credited as an "advisor" in the liner notes to In Time. All songs on the album are written by R.E.M. and they share a co-producing credit. They play the majority of the instruments on the album as well as providing the primary vocals on each track. In other words, despite the appearances of KRS-1 and Kate Pierson, this is distinctly the work of the band R.E.M.

And, at its best, it rises to average.

This, one must note, might be a ridiculous evaluation for an album that has a perfect track, which "Losing My Religion" arguably is. After all, in my life I must have heard that song a thousand times (literally) and it is still fresh and new. It still sounds unlike anything else I have ever heard. It is a truly great track. Sadly, Out Of Time does not follow up that smash single with anything remotely as great. Sure, "Country Feedback" is good and the (mostly) instrumental track "Endgame" are wonderful songs and "Shiny Happy People" is fun and memorable, but they do not hold up the album. Indeed, it is hard to overcome the greatness of "Losing My Religion" and having it as the second track does not help make the album seem more rounded out.

It is hard to compete with a song like "Losing My Religion" on the lyrical level. After all, it has wonderful poetic and angsty lines like "Every whisper / Of every waking hour I'm / Choosing my confessions / Trying to keep an eye on you / Like a hurt lost and blinded fool / Oh no I've said too much /I set it up / Consider this / The hint of the century / Consider this / The slip that brought me / To my knees failed / What if all these fantasies / Come flailing around . . ." ("Losing My Religion"). It is a powerful song about emotional collapse and it works on both a literal and metaphoric level.

This is not to say that "Losing My Religion" is the only well-written piece on Out Of Time. I was surprised by how engaging "Half A World Away" was after a few listens. This track is another sad, slow song by R.E.M. that capitalizes on loneliness and melancholy with lines like "Oh this lonely world is wasted/ Pathetic eyes high alive / Blind to the tide that turns the sea / This storm it came up strong / It shook the trees / And blew away our fear / I couldn't even hear . . ." ("Half A World Away"). I suppose it might not have been the single to follow "Shiny Happy People" with, but the truth is, it has an emotional resonance that is as serious and heartwrenching as "Shiny Happy People" is fun and bouncy. Poetically, this has imagery and intensity that makes it one of R.E.M.'s best tracks.

That said, the lyrics are not all phenomenal on Out Of Time. The track "Endgame" is without lyrics, save "la la" repeated over and over again. This is problematic only in that it seems strangely desperate of R.E.M. to include vocals on the track at all; it is perfectly fine without vocals and the insistence on having voices over the instrumentals is disappointing. Songs like "Texarkana" hold up poorly upon relistening because they are so lyrically limited. That track repeats "I would give it all / Catch me if I fall" ("Texarkana") far too often - though admittedly it probably feels like more times than it is given how many times I have been listening to the album now. It also doesn't help that it precedes the rather repetitive "Country Feedback," which has vastly superior lyrics.

Out Of Time is vocally dismal in comparison to other R.E.M. albums and even to other pop-rock albums. On "Me In Honey," lead singer Michael Stipe sounds like he is screeching out the lines and is losing his voice. He explores the lower registers of his vocal ability with "Low" and illustrates that he cannot handle it without lowering his volume significantly as well.

But more than straining himself, Stipe just presents the lyrics in a somewhat boring and repetitive fashion on this outing. "Near Wild Heaven," "Endgame" and "Shiny Happy People" all have blandly bubbly vocal presentations that are indistinct of one another. "Radio Song" becomes unfortunately noisy - which makes it a terrible way to open the album. The smoothest vocals are on the slower, sadder tracks, but they do not redeem how average (or worse) the others are.

KRS-1 provides supporting vocals on "Radio Song" and outside his little rap at the end - which to be fair has a decent social statement to make - he is mostly providing noise. Kate Pierson of the B-52s appears on three tracks and her vocals are fine. She adds a little spice to the mix of otherwise average R.E.M. vocals.

What keeps this album from falling into below average territory are the instrumentals. Out Of Time generally illustrates a stronger sense of musical sophistication than many of R.E.M.'s albums. The guitars and drums are smoother, even on the musical mess that is "Radio Song." The bass is subtle and compliments the other instruments well.

But it is the experimental instruments that make Out Of Time something different. Use of the mandolin - on more than just "Losing My Religion" - keep the sound fresh. The use of the pedal steel on "Country Feedback" and the way R.E.M. is almost daring enough to so a straightforward instrumental track with "Endgame" distinguish it from everyone else on the market in the genre. R.E.M. has a rich and complete sound on Out Of Time, but they hit their stride better with the follow-up, "Automatic For The People."

Sadly, it is that lack of balance that keeps Out Of Time from being worth the buy. There is a version of "Country Feedback" on the two-disc version of In Time, but all that one cannot get from that album that is worth hearing on this one is "Half A World Away," "Shiny Happy People," and "Endgame." Truth be told, "Endgame" is one of those tracks that sounds neat when listening to it, but is ultimately unmemorable . . . kind of like the whole experience of Out Of Time.

The best track is "Losing My Religion," the low point is the fairly unmemorable "Belong."

For other R.E.M. albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Automatic For The People
In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 – 2000 (Deluxe)


Check out how this album stacks up against others by visiting my Music Review Index Page where the reviews are organized from best to worst!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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