R.E.M. - Murmur
R.E.M. were signed to I.R.S. records in 1982, although there are arguments as to who signed them; Miles Copeland, president of I.R.S., claims that he signed them, while Jay Boberg, one of their A&R executives, claims he signed them himself, on the strength of a tape he received of what would become the Chronic Town E.P., independently of the band's link with Copeland (See the writeup for Chronic Town for the details of this link). At any rate, once they were signed, they set up Night Garden Music (with the help of Bertis Downs IV, their lawyer, friend, and one of their earliest fans, and Jefferson Holt, another early fan who became their manager), and bought back the rights to songs, Radio Free Europe and Sitting Still, which were owned by Jonny Hibbert, whose label, Hib Tone, had released Radio Free Europe as the band's debut single in exchange for ownership of the songs.
The Chronic Town E.P. was produced by Mitch Easter, at his Drive-In Studio;
he was quite sympathetic to the band, and often played extra guitar with them in the studio. I.R.S. wanted a big (ish) name producer for their latest signings, however, and signed up Stephen Hague (then most famous for his work with The Human League, now more known for producing New Order), and sent R.E.M. into an Atlanta studio with him. They recorded a version of Catapult there; the band hated working with Hague, and when he later overdubbed synths onto the track, his fate was sealed. Reluctantly, I.R.S. let R.E.M. into a 24-track studio (Reflection studios, in Charlotte, North Carolina) with Mitch Easter and his friend Don Dixon as co-producers; they cut the song Pilgrimage, with which everybody was happy, and so R.E.M., Easter and Dixon were given the green light to record an album.
All songs written by Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe, unless otherwise specified.
- Radio Free Europe
- Talk About The Passion
- Moral Kiosk
- Perfect Circle
- Sitting Still
- Shaking Through
- We Walk
- West Of The Fields (Berry/Bogan/Buck/Mills/Stipe)
The following extra tracks were included on the 'IRS Vintage' edition, released in 1993:
- There She Goes Again (Reed)
- 9-9 (live version)
- Gardening At Night (live version)
- Catapult (live version)
Murmur is a wonderful and mysterious creature, for a début album, a fact which was recognised by Rolling Stone magazine, who named Murmur its album of the year for 1983; the album also managed to make the top 30 in the U.S. charts, and was quite a large success on college radio stations.
Most of the songs on Murmur are kinda oblique; Stipe's habit of standing back from the microphone, and singing indistincly make the lyrics hard to make out, but a lot of the songs tend to focus on evoking a particular feeling, rather than explicitly spelling it out. The album is very evocative of the southern United States, although not in a Lynyrd Skynyrd kinda way; more a kind of Southern Gothic vibe, exemplified by the album sleeve, which featured a large growth of kudzu; a vine, originating from Japan, which is very common in Georgia and other parts of the south. The photo is kinda indistinct; it almost looks like an old house overgrown by the vines.
Radio Free Europe is the first in a long line of strong album opening tracks from R.E.M.; although it is something of a red herring in the context of the album, with its jangly riff, strong bassline and danceable beat. The next track, Pilgimage, is much more in keeping with the album; a gently psychadelic, somewhat folky song. Stipe has since said that the song "...still baffles me. At one point after we recorded it I heard it, and it made perfect sense...and then I forgot!". Whether or not this is true, Stipe has always been equivocal about the meaning behind his lyrics; I agree with him, as when he's being lyrically vague, the band are at their most universal and evocative; and when he wants to be direct and obvious, it's usually easy to tell what he's singing about.
Next up is Laughing, which is another folky, accoustic affair. Described by Stipe as "violent and brutal", and also as a rewrite of The Scarlet Letter (a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne), Laughing seems to refer to Laocoon, who was a Trojan priest of Apollo in Greek Mythology who tried to dissuade his countrymen from letting the wooden horse into their city; he was later devoured by sea serpents, which was a popular theme for Renaissance artists - it's worth bearing in mind that Stipe studied art in college, and much of his early work draws on that. Track four is Talk About The Passion, which was later released as a single (in 1988, after R.E.M. had left I.R.S.). It's a protest song, with pretty minimal, although well chosen, words. Tlachtga's writeup discusses the song far better than I could.
The next track is Moral Kiosk, which is on of the rockier tracks on the album, and features some odd-sounding drums, and ethereal vocal harmonies from Stipe and Mills. Moral Kiosk is about religious hypocrisy, or a la carte religion, although Stipe's words are, as usual, pretty hard to decipher. Side one of the album (if you're listening on tape or vinyl, that is) is brought to a close by Perfect Circle, one of R.E.M.'s most hauntingly evocative songs. Buck says that, after a long day recording, he was sitting on his porch, watching a game of touch football; as dusk drew in, feeling quite frazzled from his hectic schedule, he just burst into tears; he described that feeling to Stipe, and that's what the song is about. Stipe claims to have written the song about an ex girlfriend; but that it's about the same feeling that Buck described. Musically, the song features two pianos; the same riff is played at the same time by Mills on a grand piano, and by Berry on an out-of-tune upright. The pianos, combined with Buck's backwards guitar riff (a fantasy of Buck's that Easter decided to indulge) gives the song a psychadelic, otherworldly feel. My fondest memory of this song was, one night, coming home in a taxi after drinking far too much, I felt really awful, as if I was going to throw up. The taxi driver was flicking through radio stations, when the piano from Perfect Circle randomly appeared. I asked him to stay on that station, and as the backwards riff washed over me, I felt better, and I knew I wasn't going to be sick and that I'd get home safely.
Catapult comes next, a gently rocking ode to childhood, with a touch of concern - "Did we miss anything?". Next is Sitting Still, a call to action ("don't waste your time sitting still"), and one of the most obvious songs on the album. Stipe's vocals are quite nasal on this, making him sound aptly Dylanesque. One line, "We could gather, throw a fit", was misheard by a fan as "We could gather through our fear"; when he heard this, Stipe reckoned that it was better than what he had written! This version of Sitting Still is really a cleaned up and remixed version of the original (which was the b-side of the Radio Free Europe Hib Tone single). Track eight is 9-9, a somewhat murky, messy song, where the only decipherable lyrics are the last words, "conversation fear", which is apparently what the song is about. Stipe has said that the song is "not meant to be understood"; he went the right way about it...
Shaking Through is another fairly vague lyric involving geishas, but features a great guitar riff, and some wonderful harmonies. We Walk is a strangely slight song, reminiscent of Syd Barrett, supposedly about Dory Duke, a friend of Stipe's who always followed five steps behind him. The odd rumbling sound in the background is the sound of Bill Berry playing pool; according to Mitch Easter, "(adding) the pool balls just made sense". The final track is West Of The Fields, a kinda portentous, almost apocalyptic sounding tune, about the Elysian Fields, which was Greek mythology's equivalent of heaven. Stipe co-wrote the lyrics with his friend, Neil Bogan, but whatever he had in mind is lost in the echoing chorus and the forboding, edgy music.
I'm not certain about the extra tracks myself, as I don't have a copy of the re-issue of Murmur myself. There She Goes Again is a cover of a Velvet Underground song, which was also released as the b-side to the I.R.S. single release of Radio Free Europe. It's also available on Dead Letter Office, the b-sides and oddities compilation. It's a pretty ragged version, but fun, especially Peter Buck's guitar solo, and the way Michael Stipe sings with such care and concern, as opposed to the brusque way Lou Reed sang it. I haven't heard the live versions of 9-9 or Gardening At Night, but the live version of Catapult is also on the Singles compilation (one of I.R.S.'s attempts at flogging a dead horse...), and I personally prefer it to the studio version.
Anyway, in summary, Murmur is a cohesive and evocative piece of work, with R.E.M. showing remarkable maturity and assurance for a band with so little studio experience. The album it's most similar to is Fables Of The Reconstruction, a record of southern gothic storytelling, which is a lot darker and quite homesick.
Some information taken from "The Complete Guide To The Music Of R.E.M." by Peter Hogan