R.E.M. - Out of Time

R.E.M. – ‘Out of Time’ A DVD-Audio review by Mark Jordan

Out of Time’ was the album that made R.E.M. world-wide rock stars, and for many years there has been a resultant backlash against the album for that very reason. Aficionados of the band may point out that it doesn’t have the focus of ‘Automatic for the People’ or ‘Murmur’, nor does it have the nervous energy of ‘Reckoning’ or ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’. But what it does have is a madly flowering sort of creativity that demands respect, even if in its heedless gushing it produced the band’s most notorious number, ‘Shiny Happy People’. Perhaps the time has come to revisit the album in its new remaster for DVD-Audio by Warner Brothers, and be swept away again by a burst of invention which changed the face of mainstream pop and opened the doors to the tidal wave of angst which was about to sweep rock in the 1990’s. Before starting, I should mention that this release comes coupled with a regular audio Compact Disc version of the album, but it shows no signs of remastering. This isn’t a DualDisc, instead it’s what Warner call a “Double Disc”, a DVD and separate CD in a gatefold sleeve.

The album opens with the tetchy ‘Radio Song’ which combines a heavy dance groove with an annoyed, ominous lyric from Michael Stipe lamenting the state of modern radio while dropping in fragments of an implied story about a breakup. The opening lines sound against chiming guitars, “The world is collapsing around our ears. I turned up the radio. I can’t hear it,” but then the song launches unexpectedly into a somewhat studied funk hook, finding new directions to head off the despair that looms on the horizon for most of the album. The closing rap from KRS-One is a rare flirtation with hip hop for R.E.M., but it fits well enough with the urban feel of the song, and his high-spirited delivery contrasts strongly with Stipe’s scowling vocal. Altogether, the song has a bit of an odd flavor, like an experimental dish that is pretty good, even if it isn’t likely to become a favorite, but it sets the tone aptly for the wildly creative album to come. The surround sound remastering by Elliot Scheiner opens up the sound world of the song a bit, allowing the listener to hear the song from the inside out, with the keyboards and saxophone going to the left surround channel, lead guitar to the right surround channel, and all the supporting strings and percussion in the surrounds, as well as a few backing vocals. All the “main” instruments are in the front channels, as is Stipe’s vocal. Having been yelled at by insecure singers in the early days of surround sound for isolating their vocals, Scheiner goes to great lengths to avoid isolating any lead vocals in the center track, but this is nonetheless a step up from some of his previous surround production work (for instance, Beck’s ‘Sea Change’) where he didn’t use the center channel at all. To make use of the channel without isolating the vocal, he spreads vocals across the front three channels. Once this security blanket is set up, however, it is the default for the entire album. Likewise, the main instruments are kept up front in positions of “star” focus. Perhaps it would get annoying to have everything popping up in the surround channels, but once Scheiner’s parameters are set here, one could almost write an algorhythm predicting where instruments and vocals are most likely to show up on this album. Backing string ensemble? Ninety-five percent chance they’ll be in the surround channels. Drums? Ninety percent chance they’ll be in the front and a little to the right. Miscellaneous percussion? Seventy-five percent chance of one per surround channel. Lead vocals? Spread across the front channels. Backing vocals with words? Front. Backing vocals without words? Rear. Unusual solo instrument? Guaranteed to show up in one of the rear surround channels. And so it continues throughout the album.

Lyricist Michael Stipe states that he wrote the words for the album’s second track, ‘Losing My Religion’ with the regional colloquial meaning of the phrase in mind. In the American south, the phrase means “I’m about lose my temper” and that sense of foreboding is certainly present in the track. But millions of listeners found their own applications for the fears of loss explored here, taking the song to heart in a more literal sense, and as Anthony DeCurtis points out in his excellent notes for this edition, Stipe could have used the phrase “blowing my top” or “going out of my mind,” but he didn’t. Musically, Peter Buck’s mandolin-led hook is haunting yet surprisingly laid-back which proves a far more potent choice than churning turmoil would have been, sketching a picture of emotional power building, but not yet ready to erupt. Mike Mills’ rising bass line during the refrain is simple but visionary in its suggestion of rising tension. The production includes a mournful, pulsing string arrangement by Mark Bingham that paints a suitably stark background for the words.

Low’ screws the tension tighter, but again, the band’s musical choice is far from obvious, going darker and quieter than the first two songs, with Mills holding out long, obsessive organ chords that light the song like fluttery fluorescent bulbs. The refrain blooms darkly as Stipe sings, “I skipped the part about love.” Indeed, the story is implied instead of stated, fueling the growth of tension not to erupt in plain view until later in the album. The slow slides in the string arrangement, combined with the owlish hoots of a bass clarinet intensify the song’s haunted feel. The penultimate verse adds some guitar snarl, for a moment threatening to unleash that explosion early, until the refrain pulls the song into its tense, sparse final moments, which finally yield to a quiet but dramatic release into the major at the end.

Through this window of fresh air comes ‘Near Wild Heaven’, one of Mike Mills’ rare ventures as lead vocalist. Though his voice is less distinctive than Stipe’s harsh twang, it is sweet and airy, and it is a perfect change of pace. Though longing and unfulfilled, the lyric flies high and free on top of a hook as potent as any other in the famously hook-laden R.E.M. catalogue, and it temporarily dispels the mists and glooms of the early tracks, setting the stage for the bright middle of the album. The multichannel mix draws more attention to the brief contribution of backing strings, which in the original mix were buried almost to the point of oblivion. Stipe’s syllabic vocals are moved to the rear channels, but his verbal backing in the refrain is kept in the front along with Mills’ vocal. At least it remains low enough in the mix not to overpower Mills’ more feathery voice.

The next track, ‘Endgame’, is essentially a meditative instrumental, although it features a wordless vocal from Stipe (kept front and center in the surround mix as if it were a regular lead vocal). It is a cousin to the classic Troggs song ‘Love Is All Around’ which R.E.M. has often performed live, and through that suggestion, this wordless song could be seen as an expression of gentle love, the warm heart at the center of a melancholy album. It nonetheless moves with an uneasy twirl, equal parts love, sorrow, and sensuality.

Now comes the song that so many people love to hate: ‘Shiny Happy People’. The song may well be an intentionally disingenuous, childlike number, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a melancholy undercurrent running under it. The hook seems reminiscent of the band’s previous album ‘Green’, and perhaps it would have fit more comfortably there, but within the context of ‘Out of Time’, it sits well enough, ostensibly continuing the peace and wonder of the previous song, though in the end serving mainly to set up the unwary listener for the precipitous drop of the following songs. Thus, it may not be a great song, but its placement in the album is great theatre.

Belong’ brings a muttered monologue from Stipe that drops fragments of a story about a woman and her child, apparently in the midst of a war or revolution. After the admonishments of the monologue, the refrain is a wordless melisma that flings its arms wide, seemingly searching for everything so easily (too easily?) had in the last few tracks. Without warning, we have come full circle to the collapse and foreboding of the early tracks of the album. Nothing has been resolved, and the tension and unease have returned, stronger than ever. The surround mix gives more prominence to Stipe’s monologue, making it a little easier to make out the words of his fragmentary story, not that this in any way completes the open-ended tale. This prominence may simply be a byproduct of the opening up of the channels. The echo that was previously crammed into the stereo channels in the standard mix of the vocal is now allowed to travel across the soundspace to dissipate in the rear channels. Whatever the case, it opens up the song and makes it seem more listenable than it is in the standard stereo mix.

“This could be the saddest dusk I’ve ever seen,” sings Stipe at the beginning of ‘Half A World Away’. Unexpectedly, all veils and mirrors have suddenly been dropped, and the singer is now speaking directly and openly of heartache. Well, at least, as directly and openly as Stipe ever is. Despite the riddle-like chant of such phrases as “blackbirds, backwards, forward to fall,” the mood of the song is unmistakably poignant. The effect is electrifying, coming after the hints and implications of the previous songs, indeed, after all the oblique, half-told stories of all the band’s previous albums. In many ways, R.E.M. never had a chance to top this moment later on, simply because it is the first moment where the infamously elusive lyricist Stipe lays his emotional cards out on the table for all to see. The music combines mandolin, harpsichord and strings to warmly cradle the vulnerable vocal, though the harpsichord and percussion can be a trifle overly prominent in the surround channels.

In ‘Texarkana’, Mike Mills returns as lead vocalist and lyricist, this time with a stormy, windswept song that moves longingly toward catharsis, yet ultimately curls back in on itself without getting there. Here, for the first time on the album, the whining pedal steel guitar begins to pull on the emotions as it wails from note to note. “Catch me if I fall,” Mills pleads to no avail. For all the obvious mastery of Stipe, it would be refreshing for R.E.M. to call on Mills more frequently for lead vocals, as his style and color are a perfect complement and contrast to Stipe.

And now comes the album’s killer track, one of the greatest moments in rock history (or indeed, in all music history, as this is a song for the ages) as the pedal steel mournfully moans the intro to ‘Country Feedback’, a song utterly drenched with sadness and longing. It captures the moment of despair when a promising relationship fails to bloom, with Stipe obsessively repeating, “It’s crazy what you could’ve had.” The formerly reticent and elusive Stipe here stands nakedly emotional, barely keeping his voice under control. The song ends unresolved, nerves left dangling in mid-air. In recent years, the weight of expectations has squeezed the band hard, but what chance do they really have? After standing this nakedly, all you can really do is put your clothes back on or try on some new ones. The only way they’ll ever go beyond a moment like this is to toss traditional song-format out the window and invent something strange and new.

Finally, ‘Me In Honey’ takes the aftermath of these jagged-edged emotions and flings them onto the dance floor, with a groove fueled by sexy, bluesy backgrounds from Kate Pierson of the B-52’s and the inimitably rock-solid drumming of Bill Berry. This potent groove dances the despair into a sense of hard-won release just at the moment when it looked like the album’s despair had grown too dark to be dispelled. Instead of achieving a happy ending that would ring falsely, the album ends heartbroken, but ready to plunge into the future and start anew.

What is perhaps most important is that the album works as a total entity, amounting to far more than the sum of its parts. Though some of these songs have been overexposed and taken out of context over the years, their combined impact is powerful and masterful, with oblique storytelling gradually replaced by stark openness. As such, the album remains essential listening for anyone interesting in quality songwriting and modern rock performance. The DVD-Audio remastering opens up the textures for increased enjoyment, although overall more could have been done with the surround mix. Great things are not achieved without risk, but Elliot Scheiner’s mix plays it safe. The sound is very handsome, but the eighty percent rating is a comment on the safeness of the mix. Although at 192kHz 24-bit, one of the few R.E.M. reissues boasting the maximum two-channel DVD-Audio fidelity, the Advanced Resolution stereo sound brings essentially the same mix as the standard audio compact disc in slightly higher resolution.

The DVD-Audio disc isn’t exactly loaded with special features. There are nine photos, the video to ‘Losing My Religion’ (which is more easily available on the DVD video compilation ‘In Time’), and the documentary ‘Time Pieces’ about the making of this album. The documentary is no rarity, having been shown many times over the years on television, and it often annoys with needlessly random camera work and “underscoring” that often drowns out the people speaking on screen. The few grains of insight the film contains hardly portend that anyone will want to watch it more than a couple of times. The video is included as an unannounced bonus at the end of the documentary. More useful would have been the inclusion of some of the videos from ‘Out of Time’ which are not currently available.