The Good: Decent lyrics, Good music, Intriguing vocals
The Bad: Many, many incomprehensible lines
The Basics: Murmur makes for a decent debut by R.E.M. and encourages the listener to both become involved and listen to more works by the group.
For quite some time, I have been meaning to hunt down more R.E.M. albums. I have a few (see links at bottom) and I have had the idea from The Kids In The Hall that because most of the works I like by R.E.M. are their radio singles and "Best Of" albums, I am something of a poseur R.E.M. fan. In an effort to correct that sense and right myself with the audiophilic reviewer within me, I have acquired a stack of R.E.M. albums to listen to and review. Fortunately, this new collection allows me to start at the very beginning, with R.E.M.'s debut album Murmur.
If there were ever such a thing as an auspicious debut for a band, Murmur is it. Generally pop-rock, Murmur is a creative endeavor with a diversity of sound that makes it sound unlike any other garage band, which is essentially what R.E.M. was when it debuted with this full-length album.
With twelve tracks totally 44:13, Murmur is a strong pop-rock debut for R.E.M., an Athens, GA quartet. The members of R.E.M. are credited with writing (with additional help on at least one - the liner notes are hardly clear) the lyrics and music to all of the songs and they perform all of the vocals and instrumentals on the album. While they are not credited with any production or engineering credits, it seems like this is very much the artistic vision of R.E.M. as opposed to the product of a label or studio.
The result is an album that remains fairly fresh even now, with songs that are political, energetic, murky and just plain fun. The flip side is that it is repetitive, incomprehensible, fresh and unlike anything on the radio before - or for the most part, since. As a result, the lyrics and sound of Murmur is active with a voice for educating and moving the masses, but an obscuring quality that robs it of some of its impact and message. It is a contradictory combination that is at once frustrating and brilliant. If nothing else, it compels the listener to relisten to the album multiple times just to catch all that is going on musically and lyrically.
As one who has listened to Murmur over a dozen times now - I'm sure to get a comment like "Murmur is a completely different album in the second dozen listens!" - I am impressed by many of the lyrics I have understood. Take, for example, the politically active "Sitting Still." This song exhorts the listeners to stand up and participate in the political process with lyrics like, "This name I got we all agree / See could stop stop it will rid / We could bind it in the cyst / We could gather, throw a fit. . . / You can gather when I talk, talk until you're blue" ("Sitting Still"). It is rare to find a song that is targeted toward the younger generation that does not simply express disfranchisement, but urges the young listeners to participate and fight.
Similarly, much of the album is smart and clever on the lyrical front with lines like "Keep me out of country in the word / Deal the porch is leading us absurd /Push that, push that, push that to the hull / That this isn't nothing at all / Straight off the boat, where to go? / Calling all in transit, calling all in transit / Radio free Europe . . ." ("Radio Free Europe"). This first track opens the album with a sense that what is coming is going to be smarter than the average album and it lives up to that. Instead of disappointing with predictable rhymes and an obvious message, R.E.M. makes the listener dig for meaning in many of the lines they write and sing.
The problem with Murmur on the lyrical front is that not all of the tracks are lyrically complicated. A couple of the songs seem to want to make up for their lack of sophistication and duration by filling the track out with many many repetitions of the key line of the song. So, for example, on "Laughing" the word "lighted" is simply repeated over and over and over again until it is so tired and tiring as to make it hard to pick the album back up with "Talk About The Passion." As well, "We Walk" is fairly silly ("Up the stairs and to the left" repeated over and over and over again) and "Catapult" repeats its title far too often in the song to be truly fresh or deep, both of which the most engaging tracks on Murmur are.
As alluded to throughout the review, many of the vocals are not as clear as they could be. In fact, far from it, many of the lines are obscured, mumbled or run over by the instrumentals. Nowhere is this worse than on "9-9." After a dozen listens to the album, the only lines I have actually caught are "right on target", "give me a couple of pointers," and "conversation fear" ("9-9") and this is with making a real effort to understand what the men of R.E.M. are singing! It could be a perfectly wonderful song, save the that lines are almost indecipherable in the way they are musically presented.
At best, the lines are clearly presented and musically articulated by Michael Stipe, the lead singer of R.E.M. He has a smooth, mid-range voice that is able to carry notes or mumble or articulate with great musical ability. The problem is, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to when he chooses to be clear and try to take musical risks and when he just mumbles - the equivalent of a musical slouch - through a song. So, for example, he is perfectly clear to make the nonsense song "We Walk" - a singsong ditty - while making "West Of The Fields" almost incomprehensible to the listener.
Some of the tracks, to be fair, are clear in the vocals, but are murky in their meaning, which makes for an interesting musical experience. It is rare when I can listen to a song and say "I understand all of the words being sung, but I have no idea what they mean when put together in this fashion." There are musical poems on Murmur that require serious literary analysis!
Instrumentally, Murmur is not terribly ambitious and there is a pretty standard guitar/bass/drums combination which makes it seem like R.E.M. might be a garage band. The thing is, the group rocks and the sound they create manages to have an originality to it that is impressive, despite the limitations of the instruments used. Almost all of the tracks are up-tempo giving the drummer quite a bit to do and, to be fair, percussion is incredibly important for establishing the sound and energy of Murmur right off the bat with "Radio Free Europe."
The band harmonizes well on "Pilgrimage" and they have have ability to make guitar-driven tracks actually sound fresh and new in an unheard of way. The only problem with this aspect of Murmur is that it is almost entirely hard to identify a tune from any of the songs. Indeed, this is a debut comprised of songs that are essentially the anti-hooks. They are concerned with substance - save that they make it hard to actually understand - over style and as a result while the album is clearly musical, there are no catchy tunes to hum out after listening to the album.
Murmur, then, is a contraction but it works because it is clever and engaging in the obscuring; the listener wants to listen over and over again to figure out what is going on, especially when one hears Michael Stipe's passion and enthusiasm for the music he and the band is creating. Moreover, it does what a decent album ought to; it draws the listener in for more R.E.M. experiences and perhaps that is the greatest hook an album may hope for.
The best track is "Sitting Still," the low point is "Laughing."
For other R.E.M. albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Automatic For The People
In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 – 2000 (Deluxe)
For other music reviews, be sure to click through to visit my Music Review Index Page for a comprehensive list of the albums and singles I have reviewed.
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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