Saturday, May 12, 2012

Murmur (1983)

I did not care for the first full album by R.E.M.—well, perhaps more accurately, I did not care for the worshipful reception it received from all sides. In time, this proved to be one of my more abject collapses in judgment. Worse, I had to write a review of it and gave it a lukewarm one. I know, I know: "Better to say nothing and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt." I have wished many times, including the day I got the assignment, that I could squirm out of that review. On the other hand, I truly did not recognize the virtues until years later—in fact, listening to it recently, it has never sounded so good. All the things people were saying that sounded so odd to me are now the things I want to say: it's powerful, allusive, strangely stirring, moving with audacious confidence. It feels like coming home to a home one never knew before. I don't know exactly how they are doing it. I think this may be the last time they did it so consistently, except in patches, the longest of which, perhaps (to me), is found on Lifes Rich Pageant (I only say this, as an already suspect evaluator of R.E.M., because that is where I truly fell in love with the band, as opposed to keenly liking, as with the EP Chronic Town). I remember hearing people talk about the Byrds but I don't hear much of that. I don't hear much of anything that came before it, in fact—I think it's almost breathtakingly original. There's a democracy of the parts that fell away as Michael Stipe became the star. Stipe's contribution here is barely formally "lead vocal" as the singing is deliberately blurred over and made fuzzy of its meaning and intent, sliding around to feel for its notes, even as words and phrases can be easily gleaned from the tumult passing by. Why do I feel reasonably certain this was a deliberate decision on their part? In retrospect because Stipe enunciated just fine on other occasions. Also I can't help thinking the cover art is evocative of an aesthetic. There is also the scope and tenor of the song titles: "Pilgrimage," "Laughing," "Talk About the Passion," "Perfect Circle," etc. This is an album and a band reaching very far, and even within the context of mumbling singer guitar bass drums, it not only has an astonishing ability to reach very far, it also has much more grasp than one would normally expect from a rock band in their mid-20s, just starting out. Jesus, no wonder everyone was so excited.

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