REM - Out Of Time
WITH THEIR last album 'Green', REM reached an important turning point. In the space of six short years and over as many albums, the group had reached a natural peak; from humble indie college campus roots to masters of the musical universe.
Where could they go next? The airwaves and the stadia had been conquered, and claims they were the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world hardly seemed outlandish. They chose to dismantle themselves and start from scratch all over again, rather than take the easy route of formulaic consolidation of their position. As Michael Stipe said on 'World Leader Pretend', "I built this wall, and I will be the one to knock it down".
REM are back after the period of self-imposed reinvention, and 'Out Of Time' is easily their most eclectic and wildly inspired album yet, although it is still very identifiably REM - a brand new book from a familiar author.
'Out Of Time' represents the aural equivalent of a cabinet reshuffle. Berry, Buck, Miles and Stipe exchanged instruments for parts of 'Green', but here the whole writing, rehearsal and recording process sees them taking on new roles within their democracy. It's also the first time that outsiders have been allowed into their close-knit community. Where previously REM have relied on their unique four-way telepathy to create their masterworks, 'Out Of Time' welcomes a string quartet into the picture and there are outstanding contributions from rapper KRS-1 and Kate Pierson of The B-52s.
Pierson is particularly effective on the closing 'Me In Honey', a charming and frantic duet with Stipe accompanied by a relentless acoustic guitar riff, and the bubbly single-in-waiting 'Shiny Happy People'. The latter opens with a lilting waltz before breaking into a sun-drenched pop anthem, a warm and welcome blood relative to the B-52s' own 'Love Shack'. As Kate, Michael and Mike Mills each have a crack at the title line, Peter Buck offers one of his neatest trademark guitar hooks.
KRS-1 weighs in on the opening 'Radio Song', predictably the most curious and out of character track, which switches from gentle Velvet Underground strumming to anxious funk workout. It's also the album's most lyrically pointed song, Stipe offering a slight return to the eco-concerns of 'Green' as he bemoans the banality of pop radio while "the world is collapsing around our ears".
The other major departure on 'Out Of Time' is Mike Mills stepping forward to take the lead vocal on two tracks; the cheery garage pop of 'Near Wild Heaven' and the bloodrush charge of 'Texarcana', which evokes memories of the days of 'Reckoning'. Stipe continues to take a back seat on 'Endgame', a largely instrumental piece with horns and strings taking centre stage while the singer ululates in the wings.
As diverse as the music may be, there is a seam of despondency in Stipe's words, a world-weary tone of resignation. "This could be the saddest dusk I've ever seen" he laments on 'Half A World Away', while the desolate 'Low' sees him in gloom overdrive to a bass and bongos backing. The bleakest moments prove to be highlights after several listens; the obtruse spiken narrative of 'Belong' possesses a strange macabre quality, while the tortuous vocal of 'Country Feedback' could be Neil Young at his most psychotic.
Stipe sings for the main part in the first person, though it's unclear if he's taking on a character or being genuinely autobiographical for the most part. The hit single 'Losing My Religion' is likely to be read as self-reflection on REM's position in the worldwide musical scheme of things, doubt and discomfort at the prospect of unwanted disciples: "Oh no, I've said too much/I haven't said enough" is the paradox that runs throughout. If the baroque instrumentation (Buck gets to play his beloved mandolin on several occasions) and the special guest spots are REM's way of breaking free from the expectations of others, it seems unlikely to dilute the adulation they've enjoyed or endured since the days of 'Document' at least.
The greatest rock 'n' roll band tag may have been uncomfortable to live with in the past but this album will not make the title any easier to shift. Contrary to the record's title, REM are not out of time. They've gone through a carefully planned period of transition to keep thing interesting for themselves, and their time is about to start again.