Sunday, June 2, 2013

# 1 R.E.M. Murmur

                            'The first thing you notice in looking at the sleeve and taking the record out to play is the attention to detail. These people really thought about what they wanted things to look like. The name of the album, the lettering, the tangled kudzu grass on the cover, the song titles, the photos of the band. A lot of thought had been put into this. This was an assured and confident group of people.

R.E.M had played scores of dates before this came out. They'd emerged out of the Athens, Georgia college scene which also produced such notables as The B52's, Pylon and Love Tractor amongst others. They'd worked in record shops, played in college bands, done cover versions and worked on  half-baked underdeveloped originals while they developed their style and absorbed music and  culture to the point where they knew what they wanted to do and how to deliver.

They'd released a mini-album called Chronic Town with some cracking songs but an unrealised vision. Murmur meanwhile is incredibly sure-footed from the off. It kicks off with Radio Free Europe which is a statement of intent. It's pretty close to some Who stuff in terms of dynamics but offers something never heard before and builds and builds 'til the killer punch on the final chorus. Something's afoot.

Pilgrimage continues in pretty much the same vein. It's not clear what Michael Stipe is singing about. This is a consistent feature throughout and one of the main reasons I really fell in love with this album. Somebody suggested that Mumble might be a better album title than Murmur.The band responded that you wouldn't get the script of the film you were going to see when you went to the cinema so why should you be spoonfed here. The lyrics that are discernable - 'rest assured this will not last,' 'the pilgrimage has gained momentum' are about movement, change and growth. Just the stuff to appeal to pale, literate, teenage boys. The vocals from drummer Bill Berry and bassist Mike Mills here are extraordinary and to my mind unprecedented.

Laughing draws on Greek myth and Talk About the Passion talks about poverty. In a way it's the most conventional thing on here chiming like a post punk Byrds. Moral Kiosk is more urgent. Both of these songs are political but in an oblique way. R.E.M emerged at pretty much the same time as Reaganomics. They became more explicit on later albums in terms of their critique of what was going on. I'm not really sure if they became more effective.

Perfect Circle is often mentioned as one of the band's favourite songs. Quite rightly so. It's supposedly  inspired by Stipe watching a group of kids playing baseball. I imagine it also may be about being in a great band with a group of friends

Catapult starts the second side and may be the weakest song on the album but was once considered the potential break-out single and New Order's producer Stephen Hague was brought in for an ill-judged remix. Sitting Still which is up next is indescribably good. I think I almost cried on hearing it first. You'll do well to hear a whole line of coherent lyrics here. It's all emotion and youth.

9-9 is the least conventional song and it took me a while to come to terms with it. Again there are Who dynamics there and it's reputed to have a Gang of Four influence though I've never really heard it myself. Shaking Through is marginally the longest song on the album and one of the best. Like much of the album it's driven by a beat generation inspired optimism and fervour. Great use of piano here.

We Walk is truly Southern. The album draws on Southern fiction throughout. Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner are all there. We Walk is pure Harper Lee, pretty much hokum but the band is so assured that they pull it off. Even their jokey song is pretty much streets ahead of the competition. The Smiths were the only guitar band firing on this level for me at this point.

This leaves us with West of the Fields. A song that to all intents and purposes is about death with more Greek myth in the mix. But despite the theme they gallop back for one more chorus to bring the album home.

I love this LP pretty much more than any other. It never tires or dates for me and if you're not familiar I suggest you give it a go. I used to listen to it time after time at the top of the house in Teddington. It cast a spell on me! I would listen through to it differently every time alternatively the vocals, the production, Peter Buck's guitar work, the bass or the backing vocals and hear something new every time. R.E.M produced several great albums and I'll write about them on here at some point but for now I'll just commend this album.

I've no idea how often I've listened to this record or how much I'll listen to it. I'm immersed in it. It's part of me. Everybody should have a record that means this much to them. When I put it on to listen to it today part of me wanted to go back to that time and space I listened to it first as an eighteen year old on the top floor of my parent's house in Teddington. But I can't go back there Nor do I want to. I'm in a different time and space and happy to be here.But I will always love and listen to that album. I will age while it won't.  Perhaps it's my Picture of Dorian Grey.'


  1. Very evocative, Bruce, both of the album and the time when you discovered it. Beautifully written too. I look forward to seeing more.

  2. Cheers Rod! The support is much appreciated.

  3. I really enjoyed the review, Bruce. And, yes, very neatly written. Also look forward to reading more of your stuff. Regards

  4. Great review Bruce, I look forward to reading more! You were the man who first introduced me to REM, and I thank you for it- what a band.