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#1 R.E.M. – Murmur

October 17th, 2013

R.E.M. – Murmur

Murmur has always felt like a dark fairytale; the album cover is covered in Kudzu, a plant that arrived on America’s shores from Japan and found a place in the south to deal with soil erosion. Of course the plant not only solved the issue of soil erosion but started taking over the land, killing trees and covering it’s history.

Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry probably did not have much of an idea then they walked in the studio at this point in their careers to understand the nuances of making their first full length record. They had an idea of what they didn’t want; an album that sounded their live sets but rather create an eerie atmosphere to work with. With the help of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon producing, they not only redefined rock and roll but redefined the south as we know it.

When we think of southern rock we think of bands like the Allman Brothers or Lynrd Skynrd. However, what R.E.M. did was add some mysticism, in a way feeling a bit more in line with Faulkner’s ‘Sound in the Fury’ whether this was trying to decipher the lyrics of Michael Stipe or/if you understood what he was saying, what it exactly meant and immediately the phrase “Katie bar the door” comes to mind.

They borrowed from their past, taking their original songs from their first single Radio Free Europe and Sitting Still as being the backbone of the album. ‘Radio Free Europe’ creates a level of insurgency but the meaning can still be questioned as Stipe himself babbles lyrics that are both indecipherable as times and often contain phrases that are hard to discern the true meaning. In some ways, they were just random words

The arguments about what’s the best era for R.E.M. and I think its fairly obvious their first full length record was not just the best record of their careers but one of the top albums ever made. Delivered in the wake of punk, right at the height of New Wave, R.E.M.’s album works because it’s ability to not only launch one of the quietest revolutions in rock and roll but in such a subtle manner taking elements from pop. It lacks a bad chorus, verse, chord or note. The album works as much as a post-punk statement as much as it works as a psychedelic folk rock album with Michael Stipe’s mumbles creeping through the kudzu. Literally, I would say that this is the kind of album that makes dreams. Michael Stipe’s thoughts in his lyrics early on were not necessarily linear but phrases in many cases constructed together “purposefully haphazard”. Listeners would spend hours trying to make out the words and of course the internet was developed with part of the goal was for the world to get together and cobble together “Unofficial” lyrics of the band.

As much attention that is spent on Stipe’s lyrics or the guitar work of Peter Buck, the glue that holds everything together is Bill Berry whose drum work is underrated when considering the genius of this album. While fans were scourging to figure out what was being said, you find yourself lost in his percussion work on tracks like ‘Pilgrimage’ or Catapult (which also happens to be the grand experiment with Stephen Hague that went wrong).

While the band has shared songwriting credits equally through the years, there is one song the band has claimed was written by Berry and that would be their first “Ballad”, if you could call it that, and that would be ‘Perfect Circle’. Lyrically indirect, it seems the only clear quote would be “A perfect circle of acquaintences and friends’, and yet the song and music feel emotional and real.

Putting together this list of albums, at times, was a challenge. Making a determination of what albums should go where felt like pulling teeth and even after putting together the list there is still some doubt as to whether something should have been higher or lower on the listing. This is the one album that I have never doubted as being my favorite album. There is never any question that I would tattoo this on my chest wondering whether the dreamlike qualities exhibited throughout seemed to be more about my own personality. Maybe it is because I have always been difficult at remembering lyrics to songs and find the idea of memorizing key phrases more important.

Maybe it’s my love of the psychedelic sounds that the album displays, whether it’s the freakish nature on a song like 9-9 or are they the simple hooks on songs like Sitting Still that make this feel more like a pop album. Maybe it is the qualities of songs like “We Walk” which seem to invoke scary fairytales that remind me of my youth. It is an album that has only strengthened with time. I used to wonder if rock and roll would ever die in my heart. That I would grow old and start listening to something like Kenny G, but I realized that the album has kept me young, even if I have plenty of gray hairs on the outside, I am shaking through on the inside.

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