Counterbalance No. 65: R.E.M. – ‘Murmur’


Mendelsohn: Before we get started there is a word I want to discuss, which may explain all of the things I am about to say about R.E.M.’s Murmur. The word is ohrwurm, and when translated from its root German you get “ear worm”. I’m sure you are familiar with it—you hear a song, it gets stuck in your head. Most ear worms come in the form of an insipid commercial jingle or throwaway pop tune. Those are the annoying ear worms that hook themselves, uninvited into our brains. On the other hand, you get the good ear worms, the one that pop up spontaneously and help forge a connection to the music. Those are the ear worms that bring you back to the music and create the need to hear more of it. In order for me to forge a lasting connection with any band’s music, I have to get ear worms (It’s not as gross as it sounds. It’s kind of like having B.O.C. fever with the only prescription being more cowbell).

That being said, my ears must be impervious to R.E.M. worms. Everything on Murmur has been bouncing off my head like tennis balls off a brick wall. This album is good, Klinger. I know it is and it certainly doesn’t sound like it was recorded in 1983 (what, no synth?), but I still can’t connect with it. I’ve been trying to find the space where this album will break through to my gray matter but as of yet, no luck. Suggestions?

Klinger: Not being a licensed otologist, I can’t really help you with this, Mendelsohn. I might suggest that part of your problem is that the part of your brain that provides a warm moist place for the nurturing of worms is choked off because you can’t make sense of Michael Stipe’s lyrics. In their early years, R.E.M. were as well-known for their inscrutable lyrics as they were their jangly guitar-based arrangements and incandescent melodies. And while I recall spending many an hour puzzling over what exactly Stipe was muttering about, it was the last two elements of their sound that drew me in back when I first became aware of the group back in the early-ish 1980s.

I talked about this time in my life a bit when we covered Automatic for the People just a few months ago, but I first recall hearing about the group in Rolling Stone, which young Klinger had just begun reading and which had not yet become completely ridiculous. At the time, R.E.M. was being touted as the next great American band, and I was curious enough to break free of my British Invasion obsessions to give them a chance. In that sense, I owe the critics big thanks. Even today, hearing early R.E.M. takes me back to wandering around my sleepy Midwestern college town, thinking that I had entered an exciting new world. Of course, none of that helps you. Have you considered just making up your own lyrics? Or just focusing really hard on “Talk About the Passion”? That’s a catchy tune.

Mendelsohn: It is catchy. “Radio Free Europe” is also catchy. “Pilgrimage” has a great bass line and “9-9” explores some great areas between noise and rock. And it’s not necessarily Stipe’s obtuse lyrics that are throwing me off. Actually listening to whatever the singer is singing about is normally the last thing I do. I think R.E.M. is a little like Bob Dylan for me—there’s just too much of it and it all sounds pretty much the same to my untrained ears.

As you brought up in our last edition, the Great List and the critics contributing to it don’t always follow the chronological album release order, which makes it difficult to draw a picture of a band’s musical growth. So draw me a picture, Klinger—R.E.M. was an up-and-coming band, how did they fit into the framework of the early ’80s music scene?

Klinger: That’s a tough one. I suppose I could place them geographically, tracing them from Athens, Georgia up through Charlotte, North Carolina, where they recorded with Mitch Easter (early on I even had R.E.M. paired in my mind with Easter’s band Let’s Active, who shared a rootsy Rickenbacker sound). And I could also discuss them in terms of the connection I heard between their sound and classic rock (or as we called it back then, “rock”). Seldom was the write-up of the band that didn’t mention the Byrds, to the point where I recall an interview on the radio where Michael Stipe claimed to hate McGuinn and Co.

But a big part of what drew me to the band was the fact that, to a suburban kid in 1983, they seemed a lot different from whatever else was going on at the time. Not only did they avoid the synths and gated drums that were a hallmark of the Reagan era, they also looked more like me than they looked like Kajagoogoo. Now I’m aware that might sound shallow, but for a neurotic 14-year-old it’s pretty serious stuff. Groups like R.E.M., who played “alternative” back when it was called “college rock”, made music seem a lot more attainable. Of course, it helped that the music they made was as accessible as it was. It seemed intricately arranged, thanks in part to Mike Mills’ melodic bass playing, and pairing Peter Buck’s open-chord playing with melodies as gorgeous as “Shaking Through” had a huge impact. Even if there is a saminess of sound from track to track (or a cohesiveness of sound, as I’d put it), you’ve got to admit that works really well on Murmur.

Is it possible you’re just overthinking this, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: Without a doubt. But that is one of the traps of this rather wide-ranging project we’ve embarked upon. Each week we get a new album and the question is not so much “Is it good?”—we know these albums are great. The question is “Why is it good?” and to a lesser extent “Is it still good?” I come to each album looking for a connection, be it to rekindle one I had or discover one on an album I haven’t spent much time with. When I can’t find that connection, when the sparks don’t fly, I feel a bit like a baseball player in a slump—like I’m pressing at the plate, not relaxing and letting the game come to me. Sometimes that means putting the record aside for a while or simply giving it time, sometimes it mean listening to it until the ear worms take hold—neither one is always a luxury the time constraints of this project will afford.

The other problem I’m experiencing is a completely different vantage point for this album’s place in history. Where you got to see the growth of R.E.M. and how they changed the dynamic of the early ’80s music scene, I can only view it in hindsight. For me, Kajagoogoo is a pop culture reference, not a band whose music I had to deal with, thereby creating a space for R.E.M. to do something differently and change the way I think about what a band could be. R.E.M. has, up until this year, been a band for my entire life. Much of the indie rock or alternative music I listen to has been built around the band model they have spent the last three decades perfecting. Musically, I’m still drawing a blank. Maybe I need to re-tool my swing.

Klinger: Wow, you think of R.E.M. the way I think of Deep Purple—that’s kind of a kick in the gut. But putting that aside, your problem might not be as great a cause for concern as you’re suggesting. We’re looking at the Great List here as an almost arbitrary means of understanding the rock canon, making this almost an artificial, Bio-Dome-like experiment. Normal people have the luxury of settling in with music that they’re naturally curious about and digesting it at their own pace, and that’s the great thing about music—it will be there when you’re ready to meet it on your terms.

So the organic medium-fi sounds of Murmur don’t hit you right away. Maybe someday they will. Maybe they never will. So far we’ve covered two R.E.M. albums, and while they’re obviously going to share some similarities, to my ears they’re really very different. Automatic for the People presented a band in full flower, one that had navigated the path to commercial success relatively unscathed and was ready to engage the larger culture. Murmur sounds like an album by a group that had just recently formed a vision apart from its roots as a local party band—even the murky sounds that kick off “Radio Free Europe” are evocative of something emerging from the primordial ooze. These two albums are coming to be recognized as two tent posts of their career, and that can mean that they have a baggage all their own. Maybe you’d find a better point of entry with somewhere else on their career spectrum—the bigger, crunchier sounding Document or Green?

Mendelsohn: I will do that. Maybe one of those albums will deliver an ear worm and I will finally be able to explore and enjoy the varied, nuanced and sprawling careers of, arguably, one of the best American rock bands of the last quarter century. Until then, I’m going to try and not think about it.