Thursday, October 18, 2007

No. 197: Murmur

Band: R.E.M.
Album: Murmur
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Easily the most mainstream of the college radio jangle-rock of the 1980s, R.E.M. was a seminal band that straddled the line of mainstream and underground success. Their 1983 debut, "Murmur"is filled with influence from bands diverse as Big Star, The Byrds, Gang of Four and The Psychedelic Furs.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: "Murmur" is, by no means, the best R.E.M. record.
Best song: "A Perfect Circle" is sad, sublime and excellent. Mills' doubled piano is just perfect.
Worst song: "We Walk" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

In 1983, post-punk was in its nascent stages and R.E.M. were the type of band to nurture it to fruition. Building off the New Wave of bands like the Talking Heads and the protopunk of the Velvet Underground, R.E.M. added Big Star's pop and The Byrds' jangle and set the stage for years to come. In adding Stipe's lyrics with the band's pop sensibility, R.E.M. became a style of their own.


One of the R.E.M.'s early trademarks is that Michael Stipe's lyrics are a complete artistic bunch of nonsense. There isn't really a decipherable way to understand what Stipe's talking about; He's overly abstract and arty in a way that really engages the listener.

"Radio Free Europe" has some theme, but otherwise, regret and melancholy basically rules "Murmur." The song titles themselves show a picture of downturn ambiguity: "Pilgrimage," "Moral Kiosk" and the wonderful "Talk About The Passion."


R.E.M. is what U2 wants to be. Outspoken children of '70s power pop and '60s folk, Michael Stipe and Co. are able to use jangly Rickenbackers and Stipe's nasal whine to reinforce a dark world view. The band's attraction for college students in the underground, non-punk rock scene opened the door for bands like Pavement and their ilk. U2, on the other hand...


I'm going to do something a little sneaky here (and something I did earlier in the week with that Green Day record). Just as a politician answers the question s/he wanted to answer (as opposed to the one actually asked), I'm going to write about a song released eight years after "Murmur:" "Losing My Religion."

As someone who has about 50 songs on his 10 favorite songs list, I guess my recommendation for the track is mostly meaningless. Still, "Losing My Religion" is the best R.E.M. song ever released, which is saying a lot for a band that's put out "Drive," "Man On The Moon," "Fall On Me," "Welcome To The Occupation," So. Central Rain" and "Talk About The Passion."

But, "Losing My Religion" is such a striking song that it takes the cake. Because of a video heavy in imagery evoking Saint Sebastian, a lot of people find the song to be religious, but it simply speaks of religion in a laudatory, subtle tone. It's based on the Southern phrase of losing one's temper (example: "That's made me so mad I'm losing my religion."), it's a breakup song. Stipe himself has said the song is thematically linked to "Every Breath You Take" and a glimpse into the lyrics (specifically, the famous "I think I though I saw you try") evokes a quiet desperation that R.E.M. has perfected. In this case, it's the jilted, angry lover.

And that mandolin part is exquisite. Based around a G/D chord progression, it sounds enough like "Battle Of Evermore" to be great, but the song's tempo makes it sound wholly un-R.E.M.-ish. The acoustic guitar backs up the band's folkish bona fides (especially after the more rock "Green") while Bill Berry's drumming is more energetic than on previous efforts.

Stipe's voice cracks and modulates perfectly on "Losing My Religion." While he had worked in a rock form on "Document" and "Green" and a more college-radio sound on earlier IRS releases, "Losing My Religion" was Stipe's peak as a vocalist. Finally, his nasal whine would work off the guitars, as opposed to under them (something the band would reinforce on "Automatic For The People").


R.E.M. is one of the bands that made college radio into what it was for almost 20 years. Along with other post-punk bands of the era, R.E.M. appealed to a totally different demographic than your average underground band. As New Wave catered to an art student crowd, college radio's post-punk genre combined the art students of New Wave with the suburban geeky punk rockers. And so, you have R.E.M., a facsimile of The Byrds.

The band's sound is constantly evolving, but R.E.M.'s first record sounds timeless, basically. While it's not as fully realized as their later work, it's equally somber and sonically marvelous.

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