So the burning question is this: after all these years, even allowing for the fact that it was the album that introduced R.E.M. to me, allowing for the fact that its the album that led, indirectly, to me wandering LA in search of a copy of Chronic Town how do I feel now about Out of Time? It's importance as an album to me cannot be denied, but also undeniable is the simple truth that I haven't listened to it for a long time. I might have cherry-picked tracks here and there but when did I actually even listen to it from start to finish?
I guess you can't talk about Out of Time without saying a word or two about "Losing My Religion". The first single from the album (Warner Bros were sure it was a terrible choice), it had been written initially by Peter Buck on the mandolin, Michael Stipe had added in a tender lyric, and Tarsem Singh directed a video that swept the awards boards at that year's MTV Music Video Awards. It was, and still is, a wonderfully simple, elegantly beautiful song, and stands tall today.
But let's indulge for a moment the idea that "Near Wild Heaven" is the star of the first half of the album. You see, we all know that Mike Mills is the coolest, greatest member of the band, right? So anything where he gets to take more of a role is nothing less than great. And "Near Wild Heaven" is definitely great - Kate Pierson of The B-52s is on hand with some additional vocals, and there's some really lovely "ba-ba-ba-baa-ba-baa" in there, too.
Pierson crops up again on "Me In Honey", a gentle countryish way to finish the album, perhaps slotted in after "Country Feedback" in case finishing on that towering force felt like over-egging the emotional pudding. As well as Pierson, R.E.M. called in other collaborators for Out of Time: KRS-One appears on "Radio Song", at this time Peter Holsapple became an effective fifth member of the band, and Mark Bingham was brought in to oversee the string and horn arrangements, the band not feeling quite confident enough to handle arrangements for the expanded range of instruments.
So, should we talk about the elephant in the room? (Should we talk about the government?) You know, the big colourful dancing elephant. The one even the band have a love/hate relationship with. It might just be the reason why I haven't listened to this album from start to finish, without skipping one single solitary moment, in quite a long time. It's not terrible, let's not be too revisionist about this, it's just not all that easy to listen to, for some reason. But, as the band agree, it's not easy writing a flat-out happy song: anger, bitterness, hatred - these are all easy emotions to convey powerfully in a way an audience can relate to. Sheer unadulterated happiness, on the other hand - I mean, who wants to wallow in that?
It turns out that in a way I still love this album. Or if not this album, then this album's peaks: "Losing My Religion", "Country Feedback", Near Wild Heaven'. Oh yes, and "Half a World Away": quite possibly the loveliest piece of harpsichord-pop even recorded.
So: phew, mop of the brow, exaggerated sigh - it's ok. I don't suddenly hate Out of Time. I might not ever listen to it as an album again, but it's reassuring to know it will always be there if I need it.