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Qualler Visits the Classics: R.E.M., "Out of Time"

Okay, I'm breaking my own rule: the Qualler Visits the Classics series of 2009 originally was intended to break down the 10 albums of the '00 decade that have meant the most to me. And while I still will be doing 9 more albums, I needed to take a break to talk about an album that came out in the early '90s but has just recently become incredibly meaningful to me. Suck it hipsters; I'll bring the second of my top 10 albums of the '00s in a couple weeks.

Let's face it: making happy music takes some real commitment. These days, it's difficult to be a "happy" band without coming off as cloying and/or quirky. Sure, bands like Architecture in Helsinki and Belle and Sebastian are in general very pleasant and happy, but it's difficult to pull off "genuine" happiness. R.E.M., however, pulled it off on their 1991 timeless-sounding album Out of Time. Although their 1992 masterpiece Automatic for the People generally receives the most accolades, Out of Time is, in fact, just as distinguished of an album. And while I love Automatic in its own, very distinguished way, Out of Time has surprisingly emerged in my old age as my favorite album by the band. Yes, not even despite "Shiny Happy People", but because of it.

The record opens with the KRS-One-guest starring "Radio Song" which opens with the now trademark Peter Buck chiming Byrds-esque guitars, and Michael Stipe's memorable call to arms: "The world is collapsing around our ears / I turned up the radio / I can hear it". Then it drops into a rocking-like shuffle that's simultaneously upbeat and nerve wracking. "I tried to sing along / damn that radio song / hey hey hey!" sings Mr. Stipe, while KRS-One yelps and yells in the background. It is a rare example from the early 90's where hip-hop and rock coexist without coming across as forced. The second track, the now ubiquitous "Losing My Religion", wasn't even originally intended to be the hit single, but a mid-tempo change of pace from the expected smash hit "Radio Song". While taken out of its context it's still a great song, "Losing My Religion" also establishes the use of mandolin on the album, which is expertly dispersed in other tracks like "Endgame", "Half a World Away", "Texarkana", and "Me in Honey".

While third track "Low" keeps the mood creepy and Velvet Underground-esque, "Near Wild Heaven" brings the genuine happiness that exists in the middle of the album. Sung by bass player / multi-instrumentalist / my musical hero Mike Mills, the song also is the first of the album that brings the harmonies. Yes, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe and drummer Bill Berry sing the "ba ba ba bas" together with the chiming guitars. It's impossible to listen to this song without smiling. It's true. Just try it. Sorta-instrumental (I say sorta because I'm not sure if "Bah da da da da da da da, hi hi hi" qualify as lyrics) mandolin-based "Endgame" exists as a mood-changing beauty. Try not to envision yourself laying in a sunny grass field with the wind blowing across your face while you listen to this track on your headphones.

Track six brings "Shiny Happy People", perhaps the most irritating song you could ever hear if you don't notice how unbelievable it is that they committed so intently to being so happy. First, the song is called "Shiny Happy People" and the lyrics go "Shiny happy people holding hands" and it features Kate Pierson from The B-52s along with Mr. Mills co-sharing the chorus, hand-clapping, and oh yeah the video Michael Stipe is wearing that hat and they're in front of a colorful mural. But THEY ARE SO COMMITTED TO IT! It's g-d'd inspiring, folks. Not to mention, it's my dream to get another female singer and another male singer to teach this song to and do a triple karaoke performance of it. (Brigitte/Lady Amy/OHD, will you be Kate (fill in blank)? Chris/Doktor/Sean, will you be Mike Mills? PLEASE?!)

But, "Shiny Happy People" wouldn't be as rewarding if it didn't precede the cathartic track "Belong". The semi-tragic tale done spoken-word style by Stipe ("The world collapsed on a Sunday morning" etc.) is the musical equivalent of difficult times getting gotten through through the help of your friends, because the chorus is just this gorgeous harmonizing. It also ensures that "Shiny Happy People" isn't just unabashed happiness -- it acknowledges the pain we as people go through to get to where we want to be in our lives.

"Half a World Away" is another gorgeous mandolin-based song, more on the sad side, and "Texarkana" brings Mike Mills (srrs, he and Graham Coxon of Blur should be my musical mentors…are you dudes busy? Wanna jam? PLEASE?!) back to the forefront. "Country Feedback" brings the mood crashing down and is definitely R.E.M.'s most haunting ballad ever. Plus, the slide guitar that Peter Buck pulls out literally breaks my heart. But it closes on an upbeat, hopeful note with "Me in Honey", the last of the mandolin-based tracks (and brings back Kate Pierson) that triumphs over adversity through a HUGE-sounding drumbeat, repetitive mandolin strumming, and trademark Stipe vocals that could cut through anything. It ends the album on a note that will leave you feeling nothing but the feeling that you can accomplish anything and you deserve it, BY GUM YOU DESERVE IT!

Okay, so my love of this album probably doesn't make sense to someone who hasn't as "religiously" (pun alert) listened to R.E.M. throughout their lives, but there's no doubt that music like this is interwoven into my soul. So as I've gotten older and less cynical about life, and as it's become a necessity to keep my sanity intact by not wallowing in sad things, Out of Time has become a cathartic, unabashedly, unapologetically, un-hip way of bringing the happy out. It's well-earned happiness; "Shiny Happy People" wouldn't be so effective if it didn't feel like we earned to all be shiny happy people holding hands. And while Out of Time is not considered in the upper pantheon of records by R.E.M., it's become personally the most satisfying. And when it comes to Qualler Classics, that's the most important factor.

Now, who wants to be a shiny happy person with me and hold hands, hipsters?

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  1. Blogger chris | 5:13 PM |  

    Definitely counts as instrumental. If there ain't no real words, then the voice is just a speechless instrument.

    Stupid karaoke bars and their lack of selection. That should totally be available somewhere. We shall seek it out.

  2. Blogger qualler | 5:15 PM |  

    Actually, I believe "Shiny Happy People" is available at Elsie's in NE Mpls!

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