Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Murmur - R.E.M.

I.R.S.  SP-70604

I had mixed reactions to the announcement a few months ago that R.E.M. was breaking up.  Part of me was relieved I’m sorry to say.  It is not that their latter day work was bad, I generally enjoyed most of their recent albums, but I was buying and listening largely out of loyalty.  They stopped being interesting to me years ago and I felt they should have broken up when Bill Berry left the band.  On the other hand they were one of the most important bands in my musical life.  During their years on I.R.S. Records they were my favorite band aside from the Beatles.  I spent the 1970s listening to the music of the 1960s and wishing I had been born earlier.  I ignored contemporary music until the New Wave started, but even though I really liked a lot of New Wave groups, they did not displace my affection for the 1960s bands.  R.E.M. changed that.  They were the first group I ever loved that hadn’t either already broken up (Beatles, Yardbirds, Monkees, Jefferson Airplane) or was only a diminished version of its former self (Fairport Convention, the Who, the Kinks.)  I anxiously looked forward to each new R.E.M. album and finally felt nourished by my own musical culture rather than feeding on the leftovers of the baby boomers.  My passion for R.E.M. didn’t last much past the point they signed with Warner Bros. unfortunately.  As the group got more popular and started having hit singles, I became less enthusiastic about them.  Part of it was me being an indie-rock snob, but also the music was different.  The early R.E.M. was enigmatic and mysterious, the Warner Bros. R.E.M. was more accessible, there was little mystery to songs like “Shiny Happy People” and “Man In The Moon.”  I still liked those albums but the magic was gone.  Oh what magic it was.  I first fell for R.E.M. when I heard “Radio Free Europe” on a college radio station.  It blew me away and I sought it out in the record store on my next visit.  In the bin I saw this weird album called “Murmur.”  It was a strikingly odd name for a strikingly odd looking album.  Record covers in the 1970s did not look like this, even the more abstract ones generally had some sort of meaning like “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Led Zeppelin IV.”  I stared at the monochromatic image of overgrown kudzu on the cover of “Murmur” and wondered what the heck was this about?   Being a native Californian I’d never seen kudzu but if I ever make it down to Athens I will make a pilgrimage to this kudzu field.  I flipped the album over and saw a picture of a wooden trestle, a list of strange song titles and pictures of 4 guys who looked more like nerds than rock stars.  Not only did this record look different than anything I’d seen before, it sounded different too.  Art rock in the 70s took many forms, the literary-based music of the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, the classical music inspired experimentation of Frank Zappa and the Krautrock bands, the grand theatrical statements of concept albums like “The Wall” or “Quadrophenia,” intellectual ironists like Brian Eno, Roxy Music or John Cale, and provocateurs like Yoko Ono, Lou Reed, David Bowie or Johnny Rotten.  I don’t think any commercial rock record ever sounded like “Murmur.”  The music was hooky and alluring but the words were illusive, seemingly abstract.  Bits and pieces stood out in striking clarity but other parts were indecipherable, willfully obscure.  The overall effect was making the seemingly mundane and ordinary seem mystical, as dreamlike as the band’s name.  It was as if André Breton and Man Ray had joined the Byrds.  The music was still rock - it had a beat and you could dance to it, but the effect was different, it was less visceral and more cerebral.  Most pop music is meant to be consumed and discarded, this record requires the listener to fill in the blanks, R.E.M. provides the framework and the listeners add their own vision to it.  It is almost a collaboration between the musicians and the audience. This album defies conventional interpretation, it is meant to be experienced not analyzed and I think everyone probably reacts to it differently.  For me this makes the music more personal and generates a deeper bond between the band and the audience.  It used to be a running joke among R.E.M. fans to make up their own lyrics about what they thought Michael Stipe was singing about and I don’t think that is too far from the way the album works.  I used to find myself singing along to a R.E.M. song and realizing that I had no idea what I was singing about.  Even if one didn’t know the words, it was hard to resist singing along, this music is so compelling, so full of hooks.  Inevitably after playing one of the I.R.S. albums I will find the songs running through my head for hours or even days later as if they were seared into my brain.  I’m sure part of the reason I loved the R.E.M. so much was the way their music was grounded in my favorite music of the 1960s - the jangly guitar of the Byrds, the melodic bass lines of Paul McCartney, the soaring multi-layered vocals of Jefferson Airplane, the propulsive, crisp backbeat of Booker T. and the M.G.s, yet it was not retro, it was a modern sound.  It blew away everything on the radio.  So much of the music of the 1980s now sounds dated, fake and gimmicky, but "Murmur" sounds as good today as it did in 1983.  All the songs are good and many are great.  My favorites are “Radio Free Europe,” “Pilgrimage,” “Talk About the Passion,” “Sitting Still,” and “Shaking Through.”  This is my favorite album of the 1980s and one of my favorite albums of all time.  Rest in peace R.E.M., your greatness will live on as long as rock music exists.  Recommended for people who think "Wolves, Lower" is a better song than "Losing My Religion."

Post Script (2014): Well I finally made it down to Athens over the summer.  It only took me 30 years, yikes.  I loved it there, great town.  I did not bother to look for the kudzu field, that stuff is everywhere down there.  I did make it to the trestle though.  I got goose bumps when I walked under it.  For this R.E.M. fan it was like visiting a holy place.  Kudos to Athens for preserving it.

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