The Outsiders

April 9, 2007

The weirdest thing to consider about Around The Sun is that it’s actually one of R.E.M.’s most experimental works, especially for Michael Stipe. Think about it this way — at that point in their career, the band had covered a LOT of aesthetic ground, and so they could have repeated themselves, gone off in a self-consciously arty direction that would have impressed (arguably) all the wrong people, or they could play around with very uncool things — adult contemporary pop, protest music, extremely direct lyrics. There’s something very perverse and contrary about the way the band threw themselves into an exploration of musical normalcy, but for each song that either transcends or subverts its own dorkiness, there’s a track like “The Outsiders” that can’t escape a crippling blandness.

One thing to keep in mind about “The Outsiders” is that at least part of its problem comes from incredibly limp production, and that it’s actually a much better song when performed by the band in concert. The live arrangement isn’t much different, but the percussion is far more potent, and Peter Buck gets to indulge in some arty guitar noise, and that helps to lift the song out of its “atmospheric” faux-trip-hop rut, if not actually improve the composition. Surely the most damning thing I could possibly say about Q-Tip’s lame-ass guest rap at the end is that Stipe sounds much, much better doing that bit live, though that comment doubles as some very faint praise for Michael. It’s kinda sad to see that they learned absolutely nothing from the mistakes of “Radio Song,” but um, at least “Radio Song” had a really nice tune! “The Outsiders” never rises above the level of passable mediocrity.

48 Responses to “The Outsiders”

  1. Star79 Says:

    That’s a very interesting commentary about the tone of “Around the Sun”, which I haven’t really been able to form opinions about for fear of disliking it with every fiber of my being. Glad to hear someone else has a split feeling about the record.

    I was hoping that you would draw the (perhaps obvious) parallel between Q-Tip and KRS-1. There are so many interesting rappers out there with so much to say; is it that R.E.M. is more interested in them as some kind of distant ironic statement, or do they just suck and picking them? I mean, if Charlie 2na from J5 were on this track, it might have some real juice. But probably not.

  2. It’s not that KRS-1 and Q-Tip are terrible rappers, it’s that their presence on their respective R.E.M. songs seems like an afterthought, and neither of them make much sense in the context, even if “Radio Song” has a the cheesy organ and “Outsiders” has a “hip hop beat.” (Which is maybe not the same thing as having a hip hop beat, but I digress.) I mean, you can definitely make the point that KRS-1 and Q-Tip made their way to R.E.M. well past their prime, but I don’t think it would’ve made much difference if they drafted Ludacris in 2004 instead. I don’t think there’s a rapper in history that wouldn’t sound totally out of place in an R.E.M. song, and that shouldn’t be considered a problem.

  3. David Says:

    Throw Nastanovich into anything, and… winner down the line. Abandon the bulk of the lyric, and, instead, have him shrieking “I AM NOT AFRAID” over and over again.

    Subtlety destroyed, I’d grant you… but it would be far more interesting than the ATS version, right?

  4. xman Says:

    agree with you on this one. i’m a big r.e.m. fan, and it wasn’t until i heard this one did i think they were capable of making such a bad song. from that opening electronic doodoodoo to the worst lyrics ever on was slightly more bearable in concert though still nothing to “float a quote about”. i remember i had the lyrics hanging on my wall they were so bad, my roomates cracked up looking at them. i was too embarassed to play them the actual song though.

    i concur that ATS is experimental in that it challenges the listener with its extremely direct approach, yet on the whole, i feel like i’ve been challenged to stay awake throughout a tedious, uncompelling record.

    one of the band’s best qualities is subverting pop music, yet on ats, they sound postively neutered.
    what a disappointment. oh well, better luck next time.

  5. Tim Says:

    Outsiders is actually my favorite off of ATS.
    Maybe thats a commentary on the record as a whole.

  6. Evan Says:

    I actually think the rap kind of saves the song, making it a lot more interesting than it would be otherwise, and definitely placing it more in the “experimental dorkiness” category. Notice that Q-Tip doesn’t have a writing credit on the song, presumably meaning that Stipe wrote the rap and then felt he would sound ridiculous doing it… which kind of explains the white-guy hesitancy of “I want to float a quote from Martin Luther King,” and makes the final lines sort of moving: why does Stipe need to get somebody else to say “I am not afraid” *for* him?

    I also like how the song pretty much ends, and then comes back in with the rap, like it’s an afterthought or commentary on the song, in contradistinction to the usual pop convention of sticking the rap after the second chorus. “Radio Song” does this too.

  7. Beth Says:

    It’s not that the song is bad. What’s bad is it’s boring. And you have no idea how hard it is for me to admit that. I’ve loved R.E.M. since 1981, and it broke my heart to find that most of Around the Sun is just plain boring. Reveal, at least, is lovely and interesting.

    Love your blog. We could talktalktalktalktalk for hours, I believe.

  8. Scott Says:

    As an early chapter in a breakup cycle, the song plays its part fine. The lyrics are just fractured enough to avoid the gooey banality of the next song, “Make It All Okay.” The cavernous drum sound–Peter Buck seems to be playing with two-by-fours–stands on top of the beat and clobbers it. That’s the hook of the thing: awkwardness and aggression breaking through the chilly programming, a thwarted lover rapping on a cafe table in futile protest of his rejection.

  9. annie z Says:

    many of the songs from this album are much, much better live than on the album. ‘i wanted to be wrong’ is another one that really stands out emotionally in concert, especially its wordless crooning. agreed that the production simply sucked the life out of the disc as a whole — and that buck’s clashing, discordant guitar lines on this song in concert made ‘the outsiders’ click.

    ‘around the sun’ is an interesting record; about half of it is pretty great, and the other half is pretty wretched. but like ‘up’ and ‘reveal,’ it’s a grower to me.

  10. 2fs Says:

    If there’s anything more ridiculous than a very white band that does very white music having a guest rapper on one of its tracks in 1991, it’s a very white band doing very white music having a guest rapper in 2004. I mean, guest rappers on tracks by VWBDVWM might have been cool up into the mid-80s, but after that, it’s just desperate. I appreciate your efforts here to find something good to say about the track – and actually, I find a pretty decent EP buried amongst the dross of Around the Sun – but I just cringe deeply whenever I hear this track.

  11. Arkmay Says:

    To me Around the Sun is difficult to listen to because the subject matter is a little too honest and direct. No matter how brutal or impassioned earlier R.E.M songs were, Stipe was able to detach himself from the song’s subject. Whether or not Stipe thought the same was irrelevant because it just sounded like it was him singing about someone or something else even though he would sing “I”, like on Losing My Religion or The One I Love.

    On Around the Sun the delivery lacks this and it sounds so much like Stipe just pouring his life out that it becomes tough to listen to. It’s almost too confessional, probably because most of the songs sound ike he is just reading to you. There’s no mystery anymore.

    Aside from that, I always thought The Outsiders was the “before” to Make It All OK’s “after”.

  12. Random thought(somewhat pilfered from other comments): Do so many of us have such a problem with ATS because lyrically it is almost opposite to say, Murmur. ie, some of the most direct lyrics on any REM album? Just a thought…

    But on the other hand, what the hell does it mean to “mark your chapter with a catamaran”??

  13. xman Says:

    despite my boredom concerning ats, i actually like a lot of the lyrics- “i might be wrong”, “final straw”, “make it all ok”, “high speed train”, and “ascent of man” are great musically and lyrically. other songs just aren’t among the band’s best work. oo boring in either arrangement or delivery…it’s a very dry sounding record on the whole. just the same, if certain tracks from “reveal” were paired with the best of “ats”, it’d be the next “automatic”.

  14. Yeah, I definitely feel like Around The Sun is just wildly uneven — some of the songs are totally fantastic. I have much more charitable feelings about the album overall when I don’t actually have to hear some of the songs.

  15. James Says:

    “Random thought(somewhat pilfered from other comments): Do so many of us have such a problem with ATS because lyrically it is almost opposite to say, Murmur. ie, some of the most direct lyrics on any REM album?”

    No (for me). It’s the glossy production and lifeless music. Lyrical explicitness on Monster and New Adventures didn’t bother me at all (conversely, the music was exciting and sounded alive on those two).

  16. dumbek Says:

    “…it’s actually a much better song when performed by the band in concert.”

    I would say the same thing for just about every song from “Up” through “ATS”. The songs are there, they’ve just had the life sucked out of them on the records.

  17. Michael Says:

    Is mediocrity ever passable?

  18. It depends on how many merit-free recordings you have to listen to as a part of your job!

  19. Star79 Says:

    I was just listening to Fireplace off Document, and I realized that somehow the saxophone solos (by Steve Berlin, as I now know) on it, which are so out of place for R.E.M., somehow don’t kill the track the way a misplaced rapper kills these other tracks. Somehow they were able co-opt that sound and do something new with it, rather than have it feel alien and dated. I’m not sure what the difference is, but I get the feeling that R.E.M. + rappers didn’t have to be such a disasterous equation.

  20. Justin Says:

    I think you just validated Around the Sun for me. Thanks.

  21. jakub praibis Says:

    it is one of their most beautiful melodies… and one of the songs (few) that i have been struck by on the first listening – and still feel the same about it now. other such an instance would be ‘drive’. well, i just cannot understand those who dislike it and the reasons behind, but that is not a point, i know.
    i just want to send a huge support to the creators of the song (and i know this is not a typical rap, but should it be a rap, it is surely my favourite).

  22. jakub praibis Says:

    but i very much agree about the inconsistancy of ‘around the sun’ – some songs are great, some do not exactly fit into the album… that may be a problem. but i find it right to praise the gems, and mock not the other.

  23. Ignis Says:

    Michael’s live IS better than Q-Tip’s studio rap. I heard it live and he seemed surprised by how well he perfomed it.

  24. Bunnia Says:

    *Just my 2 cents….* WOW! That’s interesting that many here think that the rap parts “kill” the tracks! I feel KRS-1 did a fine job on “Radio Song” and Q-Tip did a fine job on “The Outsiders”!! (And I’m not just saying that because I am Black). I love these songs! I wish I could have even heard Michael do the rap live in concert!! *smile* I’m not a huge fan of Hip-Hop but I truly, truly respect R.E.M. (my favorite Rock band) for showing diversity and versatility in the direction of recording with Black artists. I hope all the negative attention about this song (s) will NOT encourage Michael/R.E.M. to never record with another rapper again. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that when and IF R.E.M. do decide to have another Black artist make a guest appearance on their album that it will be a singer!! Maybe some sweet soulful back-up singers to sing along with Mike Mills and Michael’s sweet and golden voice!! LONG LIVE R.E.M.

  25. Tim Says:

    I just found that itunes has a studio version of The Outsiders that sounds much like the way its played live with Mills “arty guitar noise” and Stipe doing the rap part at the end. Its on the album “itunes Originals”. I like it better than the original version

  26. Dan23 Says:

    When I first listened to this album, I was frightened and didn’t know how much I would or would not hate the album. Then this song played, and I felt it might just redeem the album for me until “Cotton Swab” started rapping, YIKES! I can’t listen to the album version, and have replaced it the i-Tunes Originals version in my play lists, in fact I deleted it off my computer and renamed the i-Tunes version so it plays correctly on the i-Pod…

    If I try to forget that Q-Tip, I mean Cotton Swab ever rapped for that song, it is actually a good song, but it can’t redeem Around the Sun from being my least favorite REM album.

  27. jim jos Says:

    I like the take on Around the Sun a lot. They had indeed never shed so many layers as they do on that disc. That being said, I still can’t make it through the whole thing in one sitting without hitting skip.

    The rap ending does not benefit the song in anyway. It truly feels tagged on at the end. The “REM” part of the song isn’t so bad, but the lyrics have a real throw away feel to them for me and, sadly, rather lazy.

  28. Patrick Says:

    I’m fascinated by these comments about ATS. Despite its weaknesses, I think it’s a fantastic album. It perhaps has nothing on out-and-out genius of Reckoning or New Adventures, but I think it’s the closest R.E.M. have come to getting back to what they gave us with Automatic.

    The Outsiders is just one of those points on the record that serves as a challenge to what I’ll accept musically from R.E.M. Like High Speed Train, it may not be a great song, but it serves its purpose as a question mark.

  29. Joseph Mills Says:

    OMG – This is one of my favorite songs REM has ever done and I own every single album. You couldn’t be more wrong calling Q-tip a lame ass. Sorry it’s not Radio Song. Around the Sun is their best work since New Adventures… to me it’s like a fine wine. It definitely got better with age.

  30. Nicole Says:

    I love the song The Outsiders. It’s urgent and scary at the same time. What do you think he’s talking about in the song? The lyrics are ominous and I think it’s about finding out your life will be changing in a drastic way. I do agree that it’s much better live with Michael singing instead of the rapper.

  31. Jim Says:

    I love the song very much, but I think Michael does a better recitation that Q-tip. If you have not heard the studio version of Michael’s version check out the single to Wanderlust. In concert the song sounds much better than the studio version, but then again I think any R.E.M. song sounds better live.

  32. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    YES! YES! YES! I’ve felt like a Biblical prophet crying out in the wilderness to deaf ears for years. Pat McCarthy MUST go! REM still writes very good (sometimes great songs) but the production on the past 3 albums is muddled and cloudy to say the least. McCarthy’s production often robs the songs of color and emotion. Maybe the production is purposefully done that way under REM’s directions, sort of post-modern irony (if so, shame on the boys for choosing tone over tunes), as they have always exerted great influence over their music, but my suspicion in McCarthy is chiefly responsible as this is not a problem that plagued REM’s albums before Up. Go with a new producer on the next record gentlemen, please!

    As to “The Outsiders” I have to disagree with the larger group here and say that the rap saves the song. This song suffers heavily from the colorless and cloudy production and the end of song rap, while keeping that tone, provides some change, something that stands out – A reason to remember the song, to notice it, to differentiate it from the rest of the album. So, I don’t feel “The Outsiders” is a failed experiment as much as a good song that needs more life in the production and the delivery, a fact that is highlighted by the rap at the end, more because it stands out than because it is well done.

  33. Kirsten Says:

    I can’t believe what I am reading! The sweet, mellow tones of this song make it the stand-out on ATS. I also think the rap is a great way to end the song. I agree with David that the line “I am not afraid” could be repeated more at the end with Michael’s humming underneath – I think it’s brilliantly moving. What a powerful way to end the song. I haven’t heard the itunes version, but the live version with Michael doing the rap was better.

  34. Catapult Says:

    I remember being speechless the first time I heard this- I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And I mean that in a bad way. And as if to validate my disbelief, I played it for my wife, who is only a casual REM listener. As we both listened, I remember just shaking my head, and then when Q-Tip chimed in with that tinny rap, I shrugged my shoulders and stuttered before finally gasping, “What the f*** is that?” My wife laughed- more at me than at the song- and asked if I would be able to remain loyal to REM after this. Silly question. I course I will. They’ve given me 25 years of joy and, while ATS can be a bit of a challenge, it isn’t without it’s merits. Besides, I really disliked Reveal at first too, but it’s grown on me over time. Perhaps in a few more years, ATS and I can overcome our differences too.

  35. RDB Says:

    Does anyone else think that Around the Sun sounds like a Michael Stipe solo album?

  36. Bunnia Says:

    Thanks for sharing!

    Yes, I was secretly thinking that when I first heard the whole album. In the back of my mind I was thinking how crazy I sounded. Not saying you are crazy, but the thought did come to me as well. *NO DISRESPECT TO MIKE AND PETER, etc.*

    A long time ago I read that Michael was planning a solo album (Field Recordings (?)) but years have gone by and I never heard anything else about it. No doubt that I’m a huge fan of R.E.M. but I am also a huge fan of Michael’s voice/style of singing!! It’s so different! That’s what caught my attention when I first heard them. And then there’s the music– oh I could go on and on and on. I adore R.E.M.!

    ATS has really grown on me and it’s what I’m playing right now! Oh, and FOTR too…

    A big thanks to Matthew for the blogs. I enjoy reading everything.

  37. Ben Says:

    Heard it live, and yeah, I agree that it’s good live. A lot of their material from Around The Sun was much better in person. More rock.

  38. […] 4th, 2007 It’s a bit counter-intuitive to think of R.E.M.’s recent flirtation with AAA and Adult Contemporary pop as being experimental in nature, but in the context of their body of […]

  39. Scott Malobisky Says:

    arguably my least favorite song by the boys –but that doesn’t mean I hate it—sorta caomparable to saying that Moby Dick is my least favorite LZ tune….or trying to pick a least favorite Pittsburgh Steeler.

  40. Elliot H. Says:

    Right, so I just listened to the song now.

    Honestly, I liked it. It’s…calming…I actually found the sound effects in the background to be interesting. Really, the only part I didn’t find entirely listenable was the flat, boring drums (which, as a drummer, annoys the hell out of me). I really didn’t see what was so bad about the song at all…that is…until Q Tip started rapping.

    My fondness of the song came crashing at a speed I have never seen or experienced before in my entire life. It was possibly the single lamest thing I have ever listened to. I went as far as to cut the song short using a program, before he starts rapping.

  41. Scott Malobisky Says:

    Elliot, whew, that’s harsh, you must never have smoked crack (!!:)) Hey Joe, any relation to Mike?

  42. David Swift Says:

    A relative newcomer, to REM and, therefore, not familiar with much of their work beyond ATS and Best of 88-03, dare I say how much i enjoy it, all of it, and play it to distraction?

  43. Jatkp Says:

    This is the best song on Auround the sun and one of my favourite REM songs. I’m not sure that the “Rap” bit at the end is actually meant to be a Rap but they just used someone with different type of voice. Like with most REM songs this one needs patience and about 7-8 hearings for it to grow on me. There are other REM songs like Ignoreland that I liked instantly but now sometimes skip as I am bored with it.

  44. Great site and interesting reading

  45. ScottMalobisky Says:

    liking this one more and more
    who knocked that future shock crowbar upside my head?

  46. Joe Says:

    The alternitive version of The Outsiders is much better, even if its only because it lacks Q-tip’s rapping at the end

  47. sarah beth Says:

    Wow I could not disagree more. This song is my favorite on the album, got stuck in my head for four months at least. I must have listened to it a trillion billion times.

    The only thing I agree with is that it was a daring and experimental direction for REM.

    I wish more of their fans could give this album some lovin. I just love, love, love it. I already said that.

  48. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I luv ATS…….. and ASS, too……

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