Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ears That Are Still

Today’s formative-album replay: R.E.M. Murmur. I can thank alphabetical luck for placing Brad Jones’s locker next to mine my sophomore year in high school, but I have to thank Brad himself for two distinct but related gifts: First, that one day he handed me a cassette with R.E.M.’s first two albums on either side, and second--possibly even more important--that he didn’t bother with labels. I’m sure I knew that the records were called Murmur and Reckoning, and those titles may have been written on the cassette case fold, but song names weren’t on offer, nor was I perfectly sure which side of the tape held which album.

I had a pretty good hunch, though, which collection sounded more like a murmur (and which like a reckoning). With a clarity of memory I have about few other first musical exposures, I vividly recall the afternoon I stood in my sunlit Arizona bedroom, parents nowhere nearby, and first blasted through the swirling guitars, the cracking snare, the venturesome bass, and those incantatory vocals and impenetrable lyrics. I can even mark the moment of intoxication, early in the first song I would soon figure out was called “Radio Free Europe,” when the chord lifts a full step up from E to F#7 (in a dreamy sus4 voicing), while Michael Stipe’s vocal soars up a tritone (from E to A#) to meet it over the lyric that always sounded to me like “Train” (but is apparently “Raving”?).

The harmonic and atmospheric intrigue only thickened with the stark layers of a song I could tell was called “Pilgrimage” (notice how even the stray words that are intelligible are perversely pronounced, i.e., “Pil-grim-ADGE”) and the downbeat wind-up patterns of a song that sounded like it was called “Logic” (but in fact is titled “Laughing”). By the time the stately, more recognizably human “Talk About the Passion” broke out the 12-string, I felt back on solid folk-rock ground, though there were more disorientations to come, from the woozy, indeterminate slow dance “Perfect Circle” to the unsettling snakepit of “9-9.”

On this replay I was especially struck by two things: One, how strong Side 2 is, anchored by a pair of disarmingly straightahead, almost-country deep cuts, “Sitting Still” and “Shaking Through,” and effectively bookended by the bipolar pop primitivism of “Catapult” and the warm, sing-songy embrace of “We Walk”; the tense, irresolute closer “West of the Fields” seems almost like an encore, or an escape. There’s a reason the initial trance didn’t wear off. And two: The harmonic ambition promised by that floating F#7 chord is delivered on throughout in a way, honestly, no other R.E.M. record has ever quite matched for me (save possibly Fables of the Reconstruction). I haven’t broken down all these songs on guitar or piano, so I can’t say for sure that they’re more sophisticated than the bulk of what followed. I do know, though, that atmospherics and indirection can only take me so far, and that this record’s durable substance, which first hit me on a literally preverbal level, retains what power it has on the strength of sounds that need no introduction.

Previous R.E.M. replay: Document.

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