Murmurations: The Allure of Early R.E.M.

❉ As R.E.M.‘s debut album turns 40 this month, we re-examine their enigmatic early triumphs.

“While it would be ridiculous to claim that a band now so well-known could be neglected, their ’80s work, particularly the first three albums, remains something of a minority concern – too strange for casual listeners seeking another Losing My Religion, and conversely dismissed by certain hipsters solely on the basis of the later hits.”

Given their ubiquity in the 1990s, it is easy to overlook just how persuasively strange and different R.E.M. seemed in the 1980s. Before the best-selling albums Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992) conquered the airwaves and turned the band into a household name, they spent a decade slowly journeying from withdrawn, mysterious underground darlings to college radio favourites, without ever seeming particularly likely candidates for mainstream acceptance.

While it would be ridiculous to claim that a band now so well-known could be neglected, their ’80s work, particularly the first three albums, remains something of a minority concern – too strange for casual listeners seeking another Losing My Religion, and conversely dismissed by certain hipsters solely on the basis of the later hits. With their debut album Murmur celebrating its 40th anniversary this month (April 2023), now seems as good a time as any to re-examine R.E.M.’s enigmatic early triumphs.

R.E.M. formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980, releasing their first single, a rough and ready take on Radio Free Europe on Hib-Tone the following year. It was with 1982’s sublime Chronic Town EP for I.R.S. Records that their sound really began to coalesce: a taut gossamer web of Michael Stipe’s keening, indistinct vocals, Peter Buck’s arpeggiated guitar, Mike Mills’ melodic bass, and Bill Berry’s urgent, unfussy drums. The songs were almost impenetrable (who knows what Wolves, Lower means?) but sidestepped any preciousness with an abundance of energy and intrigue.

Following unsuccessful sessions with I.R.S.’s initial choice of producer, the polished Stephen Hague, the band began to craft their first LP in early 1983 with the production team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. The resulting record was strikingly out of step with most of the contemporary New Wave and Synth Pop surrounding it.

From its eerie Kudzu-weed strewn cover to the final ringing chord of its closing song, Murmur seems designed to be both homely and wilfully obscure. Like a secret whispered at a riverside, it is intimate but easily misheard, bucolic but riven with undercurrents. The wooden trestle bridge depicted on the back cover suggests travel to some arcane, dusty destination, and the songs seem to exist in their own world outside time (or at least 1983) – part Southern Gothic, part ’60s retro pop, and part inscrutable surrealism.

While many reviewers found echoes of The Byrds in Buck’s jangling fretwork, there are also touches of The Band’s rootsy imagery and sound, but with their mythological tales of old America twisted into far stranger, sparser shapes. Musically, the gorgeous, winding rush of Murmur’s Shaking Through is a perfect slice of crystalline Americana, yet its mumbled mysticism seems to originate from the subconscious rather than from any cohesive vision of US history.

A hint of fellow Athens residents Pylon can be found in the album’s off-kilter rhythms, along with a sprinkling of the homemade percussive drive of The Feelies. Musically, the verses of Pilgrimage are built around an off-centre stagger, while Sitting Still does anything but match its title, frequently threatening to tumble over itself without ever quite doing so. Laughing deliberately emphasises its offbeat, causing the rest of each bar to rush to catch up, and Perfect Circle repeats the trick at a far lower speed to exquisitely elegiac effect.

Radio Free Europe reappears in re-recorded form, tighter and clearer without any loss of energy, its surging urgency contrasting with the gracefully folky stroll of Talk About The Passion and the hiccupping gait of We Walk. 9-9 even suggests a certain self-aware humour, with the clearest words emerging from its lilting cacophony being the phrase ‘conversation fear’ a moment that perfectly summarises the entire record’s unlikely marriage between a sense of warm intimacy and a total lack of willing communication.

Keen to build on Murmur’s surprise critical success, R.E.M. set about recording a sophomore effort, working again with producers Easter and Dixon. The resulting album, 1984’s Reckoning, showcased a slightly more rock-orientated sound without diluting their mystique and reserve.

Opener Harborcoat positively attacks the listener when compared to Murmur’s winsome sway, though its vocals remain characteristically blurred in sound and meaning. Tracks like Pretty Persuasion and Second Guessing possess a kind of emaciated, rickety raunch, their shy but distinct swagger pointing a wayward path towards the more aggressive style of later albums Document (1987) and Monster (1994).

(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville cheerfully hams up the band’s latent country side to playfully gorgeous effect, in stark contrast to the grief-struck, wrenching Southern lament of So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry). Camera could almost be a dry run for their later stadium anthems, all the more affecting for its relative restraint, while 7 Chinese Bros. wraps its riddle inside a perfect parcel of faux-naif guitar lines.

With two acclaimed albums now under their belt, R.E.M. experimented with a fairly dramatic change of producer and location for their third full-length LP. Perhaps the most divisive of their early releases, 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction was recorded in London with Joe Boyd, veteran producer of numerous left-field folk classics by the likes of The Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, and Vashti Bunyan. By all accounts, the sessions were a miserable experience for the exhausted and increasingly homesick band. However, somewhat perversely, the lonely and trying circumstances gave birth to their most deeply Southern-themed album.

The reversible title (Fables of the Reconstruction or Reconstruction of the Fables) suggests real Southern history and folklore recast as an interior mental landscape; a memory map with an intertwining topography of fact and fiction. This idea seems to drive the record, from the ghostly palimpsest vocals of Maps and Legends to the fragmented character studies of Old Man Kensey and Wendell Gee. Driver 8 draws on traditional American imagery of lonesome trains endlessly journeying to nowhere, while the cryptic Life and How to Live It takes its title from the possibly apocryphal story of Brivs Mekis, an ornery, reclusive Georgia native who apparently wrote a book of the same name only to hide all of the published copies away in his own closet.

Boyd’s oddly flat production swathes the songs in smog, as though the band were looking back at their homeland through a witch’s crystal ball. The atmosphere is dense and dreamlike, a tone encapsulated by the chromatic, sickly lurch of album opener Feeling Gravitys Pull (sic). Buried within these spectral layers are two songs that seem to draw on deeply personal traumas. Good Advices is a dark mirror of the later Everybody Hurts, utterly refusing to offer any comfort, but the broken heart of the record is Kohoutek. Named after the comet, Kohoutek links its natural phenomenon to a deteriorating relationship, tying profound personal pain to the cosmic in a desperate form of catharsis. With its dirge-like production and submerged vocal, the track is easily missed at first, but, like the rest of this frequently overlooked and unique album, repeat listens draw out its haunted, compellingly bleak beauty.

With the following year’s Lifes Rich Pageant (sic), R.E.M. began their slightly unwilling voyage towards superstardom, their sound gradually growing larger and clearer. While it is sometimes fashionable to deride their later success, it is arguably unfair to do so. They grew without entirely losing their roots and preserved a strong sense of identity – a much bigger band certainly, but, aside from over-familiarity and a few lacklustre later efforts, not an intrinsically worse one. In any case, the trilogy of Murmur, Reckoning, and Fables of the Reconstruction have quietly retained their curiously elusive magic, forming a brilliantly strange foundation not just for the rest of R.E.M.’s career but for an entire strand of popular alternative music from the 1980s and beyond.

❉ Follow R.E.M. HQ on Twitter: @remhq

❉ Johnny Restall writes about cult films, music, and books. You can find him on Twitter at @johnnyrestall.

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