Sunday, February 26, 2023

R.E.M.'s Murmur gets a mix of academic and popular dissection in the 33 1/3 series

Even after all these years, I have yet to decide whether Murmur or Reckoning is my favorite R.E.M. record. But here are my favorite tidbits learned about Murmur by reading J. Niimi’s entry into the 33 1/3 book series:

  • Michael Stipe saw the word “murmur” on a list of the seven easiest words to pronounce.
  • It was produced by Mitch Easter in Charlotte, N.C. Easter also produced Reckoning, Pavement’s Brighten the Corners, and many others.
  • The studio where it was recorded was named Reflection and was mostly home to Southern gospel and soul recording projects. It had a certain church-like quality.
  • Guitars “were kind of out at the time” but the band wanted to have very clean sounding guitars, not fuzzy. Each band member recorded in different rooms and Stipe set up under the stairs because he didn’t want anyone to see him singing.
  • The second part of the book is the slog part for me, as Niimi mostly settles into a techie talk of what was happening with the gear and intricacies of each cut’s creation, with not nearly enough information about where these songs were originating from in the band member’s brains, which would have been more interesting to me.
  • Next, the author ruminates about the times of Murmur. Precisely, 1983. He bought the cassette at a suburban John Hughes-like Chicago mall and later bought it on CD.
  • The compelling and mysterious album cover art seemed perfect for R.E.M. Kudzu, a Japanese plant, had been placed throughout the South in the 1930s as part of the New Deal to get people working. The thought was that the plant would improve the soil throughout the region, but by the time of the album’s release, it had basically eaten the South.
  • Niimi then takes a sidetrack to explore if Murmur truly fits the alleged categorization of “Southern Gothic,” and he makes a good case that the album artwork certainly fits that genre. But I’m less convinced that it's an adequate description of the music itself. Stipe’s obscure lyrical style does feel at times in the tradition of Edgar Allen Poe and post-Civil War. However, the music, for me, has always hit more accurately as jangle pop - nothing much gothic at all. R.E.M. also became a major foundation of “college rock,” which I'm defining as the kind of music one listens to while investigating one’s self much more independently for the first time as an early adult more removed from the influence of parents (and their old Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young albums).
  • A fairly long examination of Stipe’s “bad grammar” lyrics concludes that the words of the band’s songs helps the listener create their own narratives for what is happening. In that sense, I agree that abstract lyrics by bands like R.E.M., Pavement, and Wilco may very much be a plus towards the levels of how much i appreciate them.
  • While he may have earlier been influenced by the likes of the New York Dolls, by the time of Murmur, the singer was moving away from their “brand of punk nihilism.”
Murmur only topped out at #36 on the U.S. album charts but was tops or among the tops for 1983 on most critic lists. While this is far from a definitive work on Murmur, it is a worthy read for R.E.M. fans.

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