Youthful idealism is a bitch. Just ask R.E.M. Ten years after the release of their first single, a punky shot of garage-band heaven called ”Radio Free Europe,” the Athens, Ga., bohemians seem to have it all. Acknowledged as shapers of the off-the-beaten-path course of ’80s rock, they are the proud possessors of a million-dollar record contract with a conglomerate, they play concerts in 20,000-seat halls, their song ”Stand” is the theme for a TV sitcom (Fox’s Get a Life), and they can take as much time as they want between records: Their latest, Out of Time, comes 2 1/2 years after its predecessor, Green. They’ve managed to become our most popular semipopular underground arena band, with their integrity and core following relatively intact.
Anybody else would be satisfied. But the R.E.M. we hear on Out of Time sound fidgety. Anyone anticipating the murky uplift of old better stick with the band’s early work. On the new album we get string sections, organs straight out of a church service, a cameo by rapper KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions, a spoken-word recitation (set to music) by singer-lyricist Michael Stipe, and a mood instrumental that plays like 101 Strings Play the R.E.M. Songbook.
Any band that tinkers so dramatically with its trademarks may simply be trying to plow through its own creative sandbags and break new ground. But on Out of Time R.E.M. merely come across as bored: bored with their links to corporate rock and their newfound audience (most of these songs sound too intimate for arenas), bored with the sound of Peter Buck’s guitar (there’s so little of it here), bored with the sound of Stipe’s voice (bassist Mike Mills sings lead on an unprecedented two songs). In the end, they sound bored simply with being R.E.M., and they’re not very good at hiding it: With its weight-on-their-casually-dressed-shoulders feel, Out of Time is the least satisfying, most forced album they’ve ever made.
Granted, even the best bands begin to lose focus or repeat themselves after nearly 10 records. But there’s something lacking here that seems to be the result of more than creative exhaustion. Starting with their first album, 1983’s Murmur, R.E.M. demonstrated that some traditional rock values — the strummed guitars and pensive lyrics of folk-rock, the raw edge of ’60s garage bands — were still valid. At the same time, the group’s sonic rush and Stipe’s buried-in-the-mix vocals blended together for a sound so enigmatic that you could read nearly anything you wanted into it. And in the mid-’80s, plenty of people — particularly white kids in and around college age — did. Listening to R.E.M., it was easy to take comfort in the fact that there were four guys out there who were just as baffled and inarticulate — and just as unsure of their place in society — as you were. Their haircuts were as bad as yours, too.
R.E.M. weren’t alone in connecting with this Reagan-era audience. From Hoboken, N.J., to Los Angeles came an onslaught of young bands who sought a comfortable place between the Top 40 and hard-core punk. The result was a vibrant grass-roots community courtesy of feisty, independently distributed record labels. Like anything else in life, however, the scene didn’t last. Thanks in part to R.E.M., major record companies began using the indies as farm teams, in the process decimating them. Today, R.E.M.’s legacy has been reduced to the mostly interchangeable college-rock bands that sprout up on every major label. And be it from arrogance or simple lack of talent, most of those bands seem lost — outdated, unwilling to meet the MTV audience even halfway, and hence landing nowhere except in the cutout bins. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
That is hardly the brave new utopia envisioned by postmodern rock. And from the fatigued feel of Out of Time, no one seems to sense it better than R.E.M. The first single, the poignant, mandolin-laced ”Losing My Religion,” is as lyrically ambiguous as ever. But its chorus — ”That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight/Losing my religion/Trying to keep a view/And I don’t know if I can do it” — could easily be the group’s comment on sacrificing itself on the altar of the commercial church. Their success clearly hasn’t done much to improve the sad state of contemporary radio, at least as Stipe tells it on ”Radio Song”: ”The world is collapsing around our ears,” he gripes, before going on to chastise radio for playing annoyingly catchy hits.
”Radio Song” is as good an example as any of the album’s misfires. It kicks off with a treacly mix of guitar and strings that could have come from a Monkees single, then juxtaposes album-rock power chords, a KRS rap, funk guitar licks, and orchestration that swells around the chorus. The arrangement works so hard to not sound like an R.E.M. song that it doesn’t sound like anything, other than a mess. Out of Time is filled with such failures, like the recitation ”Belong,” which veers dangerously close to collegiate-poetry turf.
Out of Time is not an outright failure, because there is still an intrinsic beauty to R.E.M.’s sound — the combination of Stipe’s gruffness, Mills’ wholesome harmonies, Buck’s spare, elegant guitar parts — that no amount of weak material can ruin. You can hear it on ”Near Wild Heaven,” which springs to life like a meadow full of daffodils, and ”Half a World Away,” an achingly pretty ballad with a forlorn stranger-in-a-strange-land melancholy that speaks volumes for the band’s state of mind. But mostly you come away with moments, not songs: the wash of guitars and strings on ”Texarkana,” the chilling moment in the lost-love ballad ”Country Feedback” when Stipe sings ”I neeeed this” as if he were a desperate junkie.
With any luck, the joylessness that pervades Out of Time will turn out to be just rock & roll malaise. But the world-weary tone bespeaks a spiritual | collapse no platinum records can cure. Throughout the album, whether in bits of pastoral beauty or the exuberant harmonies of Stipe, Mills, and guest Kate Pierson of the B-52’s on ”Shiny Happy People,” there are glimmers of the band’s continuing belief in the possibility of a better world. But you also get the sense they’re taking the commercial failure of alternative music (and its inability to rearrange the universe) personally, as if they did too much or too little to help it along. Out of Time marks the end of the world as R.E.M. knows it, and they don’t feel so fine.