Let me start off by saying that I am an album guy. A good album flows well, enhances the songs, and is a work of art above and beyond the individual songs collected on it. One of the tragedies of the digital age of music is the demise of the album as an art form. So, in this project I plan to take albums (some classic and some not) and re-imagine them. In some cases with a goal of making them work better as an album and in others just to see how well they hold up if I mess around a classic. I don’t have hard rules but generally the idea is to mix up the running order, change the opening and closing tracks, and occasionally add in or take out something that I think should or shouldn’t have been there (although I will usually include all studio tracks that the band included on the original album). Feel free to play along and create your own versions of the albums as well and post them in the comments.
Albums Re-Imagined: Out Of Time by R.E.M.
Listen To The Re-Imagined Album: Out Of Time (Re-Imagined)
R.E.M. had been flirting with the mainstream since the late 80’s. Songs like “The One I Love” and “Stand” had been pop radio and MTV hits, not just successful on 80’s college radio. However, it was 1991’s Out Of Time that really broke the band into the mainstream and launched them on a path to superstardom that would last a decade and make them one of the biggest bands on the planet. On the one hand this makes sense as R.E.M. had long been America’s leading underground and/or college rock band and 1991 was the year Nirvana and grunge rock brought “alternative” music into the mainstream. On the other hand though R.E.M. sounded little to nothing like the new alternative music that was becoming popular; and that was particularly true with Out Of Time, which is a moody, folky, largely acoustic album.
That feeling of being out of place or out of time (pun definitely intended) is made even greater by the running order of Out Of Time, which quite frankly is strange. The album opens with the biggest outlier on the record, the white man’s funk/rap/pop song of “Radio Song” before going directly into “Losing My Religion”. Of course, “Losing My Religion” became a massive hit so in hindsight it doesn’t seem as strange to place it second, but in truth it is a moody ballad built off a mandolin riff and an archaic southern expression. The rest of the front half is equally odd as it contains a minimalist percussion piece (“Low”), a song with lead vocals by bassist Mike Mills rather than Michael Stipe (“Near Wild Heaven”) and a mostly instrumental mood piece (“Endgame”). The album then moves on to it’s more song-oriented second half.
Obviously, the unusual running order didn’t do anything to hurt the record, but I thought I would reorder it nonetheless. I am also adding one extra track – “Fretless” – that was written during the Out Of Time recording sessions but then given away to the movie soundtrack Until The End Of The World, as it really belongs here. There is another rarity that I really like and that was ultimately used on the Coneheads soundtrack, the quirky “It’s A Free World, Baby”, but it just didn’t seem to have a home on the album so I still left it off my new version even though I do think it is a good song. So here is my new version of R.E.M.’s Out Of Time, which I won’t say is necessarily better, but that I do like. With my version I attempt to build a loose narrative arc about conflict, denial, defeat, and redemption, which I will outline further as you read below.
1. Belong – Admittedly “Belong” is something of a strange song, but it has incredibly beautiful harmonies and is a great introduction to the moody, folky, defiant tone that many of the songs on Out Of Time have. It also is the kind of song, with its spoken-word verses and non-verbal chorus, that immediately reaches out and grabs the listener because it is so different from what is expected. Indeed, I have always felt that “Belong” packs an incredible emotional punch for a song that actually says so little. While lyrically the song is quite strange (in a good way), musically “Belong” is one of the more traditional R.E.M. moments on Out Of Time. Peter Buck’s guitars chime and ring like classic early R.E.M., Mike MIlls’ bass drives the song and carries much of the melody (and his harmony vocals are amazing), and Bill Berry’s drums and percussion provide the firm backbeat needed to ground such a dreamlike song. Thus, “Belong” is both challenging and familiar for fans of the band and a great opener.
2. Me In Honey – My original thought was to open my version of Out Of Time with “Me In Honey” but I just couldn’t have the first thing we hear on an R.E.M. record be The B-52’s Kate Pierson’s vocals since she isn’t actually in the band. That said, “Me In Honey”, with its acoustic strum and yearning, searching vocals is the perfect track to follow “Belong” as they set a tone that serves the album well as they are both warm sounding but questioning or searching. I have often described R.E.M.’s 80’s output as “southern gothic” and these two tracks open up my version of Out Of Time firmly within that tradition while also establishing the somewhat different, more expansive, sound that Out Of Time takes. Both songs also introduce the idea of a person who is in conflict and must now deal with the unexpected hand they have been dealt.
3. Shiny Happy People – The most upbeat, pop moment on the record and a hit single, I’ve moved “Shiny Happy People” up to the third spot. I like it here for a variety of reasons. First, it’s catchy, warm and fun and changes the mood up from the first two tracks without changing the tone of the record harshly. Second, I like the segue from using Kate Pierson sparingly as aural coloring on “Me In Honey” to her being used as almost a co-lead here on “Shiny Happy People”. Third, because the song is much more pop-oriented and, well, happy, it disrupts the thematic flow of the record much less here than buried deep on the album.
4. Near Wild Heaven – “Near Wild Heaven”, with lead vocals provided by bassist Mike Mills, is actually also track four on the original version of Out Of Time but I have moved everything around it so it fits into the puzzle differently. A dreamy pop song with chiming, shiny guitars and ringing arpeggios, “Near Wild Heaven” is an homage to key R.E.M. influence The Byrds and the second most pop-oriented moment on the record, even if it sounds like something lifted from the late 60’s rather than the early 90’s. Following “Shiny Happy People” it continues the sunny, warm feel of this section of my version of the record but is also serves a musical transition to the darker, folkier music that is coming. “Near Wild Heaven” has just a touch of a sad, dark undercurrent here; as if the song is being sung by somebody looking back at a happy, carefree time but also realizing that the age of innocence is about to end.
5. Losing My Religion – The flow from “Near Wild Heaven” to “Losing My Religion” works surprisingly well as the band shifts from the nostalgic Byrds-like sound of “Near Wild Heaven” to the moody mandolin-based romanticism of “Losing My Religion”, which in this spot serves as a thematic and emotional gateway into the rest of Out Of Time, while still front-loading “Losing My Religion” enough that it isn’t lost in the depths of the record. Built off an old southern expression, the phrase “losing my religion” means to be at the end of one’s rope, to not be able to deal with anymore, to be ready to give up, and the song certainly creates that feeling, making “Losing My Religion” one of the greatest and most beautiful moments in 90’s music. From here, my version of Out Of Time really embraces the alternative folk vibe that most of the album deals in and follows the loose arc of collapse, defeat, and redemption . This could be an issue if the songs were more alike, but R,E,M. really varies the sound of these songs while also managing to make them all feel emotionally and sonically connected.
6. Country Feedback – A fan favorite that was buried very, very deep on the original version of Out Of Time I have moved it up so that it runs back to back with “Losing My Religion”. Both songs are dark, bordering on hopeless, but where “Losing My Religion” is lush and beautiful “Country Feedback” is worn, weary, and broken; the song of a desperate man ready to do desperate things. For me it always conjures up sepia-toned mental images of homeless, impoverished families in the Great Depression and ruinous environmental degradation. Buck’s guitars seem to moan and cry and Stipe sounds beaten and broken, yet deeply angry. It may sound terribly depressing on paper but it is an incredibly powerful song and in this position it serves, with “Losing My Religion” as the emotional and thematic center of the album and really does lend powerful meaning to the album title: Out Of Time.
7. Texarkana – In the place that would have opened up the second side of the album in the old pre-CD days is the more propulsive, but only marginally more upbeat, “Texarkana”. The song is Mike Mill’s second lead vocal (something that had never happened before and would never happen again on an R.E.M. record) but here his vocals are buried deep enough in the mix that it almost doesn’t matter who is singing. “Texarkana” feels lost, or perhaps stuck between two places at once, as the song title implies (although that would mostly be a happy accident since the title is really just a holdover from an earlier version of the song that Stipe sang with different lyrics). All in all, “Texarkana” is just upbeat and propulsive enough to pull the album out of the emotional and sonic mire that the previous songs created, but not so much more lighthearted as to be jarring in tone.
8. Low – “Texarkana” is relatively big sounding, with its full band instrumentation and soaring backing vocals provided by Michael Stipe, in spite of it still feeling somewhat lost and hazy. The minimalist “Low”, built up from Berry’s soft percussion, is the perfect counterpoint. “Low” feels more sad than defeated, and even ends with a sense of hope and defiance, when it picks up a little over the back half. I have always really liked “Low”, but it also felt somewhat out of place positioned so early in the track order of the original version of Out Of Time. It is such a quiet, sad, yet potentially triumphant song that it fits the sound and mood of this part of my version of the album, while also offering a partial break from the thematic bleakness.
9. Fretless – Not included on the original version of Out Of Time is the outtake “Fretless”. Used as part of the soundtrack to the obscure film (but excellent soundtrack) Until The End Of The World, even Peter Buck has said R.E.M.’s decision to not include it on Out Of Time may have been a mistake. I have put it back in. A soft, warm, but achingly desperate ballad built off of piano, organ, and strings, ”Fretless” feels like a fever dream. And while the song is relatively simple, it is quietly cinematic and epic, whereas “Low” was sparse and subtle. Together they form a nice, but varied, quiet storm here on the back end of the record. I also like how Kate Pierson’s backing vocals tie this later part of the record to the earlier, more hopeful beginning and brings things full circle.
10. Half A World Away – While nobody would ever argue that “Half A World Away” is upbeat or happy, it almost feels that way placed here after “Low” and “Fretless”. “Half A World Away” is another mandolin-based folk ballad, this time dealing with loneliness and separation from loved ones, but the song feels much more positive than anything on my version of the album since “Near Wild Heaven”. The song is wistful and nostalgic, rather than beaten and bruised, and its protagonist may be a long way from the ones he loves but he is with them in his heart and knows that the separation is temporary. Placed here, “Half A World Away” seems to be say we haven’t made it through the hard times yet but the end is in sight, and I think we can make it. Somehow, the song feels tired and sad, but also hopeful, and I think it really works well within the sonic story arc I have attempted to create here with my version of Out Of Time. Placed this deep on the record it is also separated enough from the other mandolin ballad “Losing My Religion” that it doesn’t seem too similar or derivative.
11. Endgame – Continuing the album story arc I have attempted to create I (almost) end my version of Out Of Time with “Endgame”. “Endgame” has no words, but both the music and Stipe’s emotive cooing, are warm, rich, and feel like the happy end to a long and difficult journey. “Endgame” feels like coming home and finding rest and so I have placed it here as the peaceful and pastoral conclusion to our musical and thematic narrative.
12. Radio Song – “Radio Song” is the most difficult song to place in any version of Out Of Time. Musically it is quite different than the rest of the album in that it is rooted in funk and hip-hop (featuring rapper KRS-One) rather than the folk and acoustic pop overtones of the rest of the record. Lyrically, “Radio Song” is also an outlier, basically serving as a pop-friendly attack on the evils of pop radio and its ability to shape what is popular regardless of whether it is good or not. As the champions and (reluctant) voice of 80’s college radio R.E.M. were in a good place to speak to this but that doesn’t change the fact that it makes “Radio Song” a strange thematic fit with everything else that is here. R.E.M. chose to deal with it by placing it as the opening track, but I think it works better here at the end. In my version of Out Of Time I attempt to tell the loose story arc of a person who must deal with the unexpected difficulties that life has thrown at them, who pretends all is fine with life for awhile, and then must deal with the bottom falling out and everything falling to pieces before ultimately finding hope and eventually healing. “Radio Song” doesn’t really fit anywhere into this arc in story or sound. That said, I really like it as a coda to the whole thing that serves as both a funky lighthearted moment at the end and as a very meta commentary that pop radio doesn’t support the kind of emotional storytelling and mature music that this album just offered.