Out of Time (1991) sees R.E.M. at a point of reinvention. Their previous album Green (1988), their first on major label Warner Bros., featured relatively straightforward tunes and a consistent if conservative sound palette. On Out of Time, they incorporate baroque instrumentation, guest vocalists (including rapper KRS-One), spoken-word poetry (“Belong”), and Mike Mills even plays some slap bass on the funky opener “Radio Song”. A patchwork of genres and moods, the album arguably features R.E.M.’s most diverse collection of songs. With the band stretching out so far, and half the album being upbeat songs, it’s hard to imagine “Country Feedback” standing out with its understated, drowsy melancholia.
The title spells out plainly what the song sounds like – a duet and duel between Country-style slide guitar and electric guitar feedback; two instruments co-dependent on but fighting against each other, like the two protagonists in the lyrics. Michael Stipe has seldom been straightforward in his lyrics, and “Country Feedback” is no exception, but here he balances so expertly the cryptic and the confessional: “these clothes don’t fit us right, and I’m to blame.” The song sounds like a letter of hurt and regret, with Stipe delivering an extraordinary vocal performance via his stream-of-consciousness lyrics, repeating phrases with both dread (“you wear me out, you wear me out”) and desperation (“I need this, I need this”).
Bassist Mike Mills plays the organ here, padding the song with a funereal mood, while drummer Bill Berry takes over on bass, his rudimentary playing forging a solemn pace. With the rhythm section playing instruments outside their comfort zones, Peter Buck commands the show with his quivering, tremolo-ed guitar. I can’t remember him ever playing guitar like this, with a lead line throughout the entire song, snaking through the shaker and bells, feedback wafting through the air of regret.
While on tour, Stipe had introduced the song in various concerts as his ‘favorite’, and “Country Feedback” is truly engaging to hear in its live renditions. On various YouTube videos, it’s fascinating to see how Buck varies his solos at the end of “Country Feedback”, with every palm-mute, note bend, and vibrato swoop lending drama and poetry to the song. – Song-Ming.