New Adventures in Hi-Fi: My Journey Into R.E.M., Part 2

Welcome back! In today’s installment of my musical journey through R.E.M.’s discography, I tackle the first two full-length albums from the Athens, Georgia quartet. The first one, 1983’s Murmur, pops up in just about every list of the greatest pop/rock albums ever made, so I was really curious to hear what all the hype was about. And then it’s on to next year’s Reckoning and the first major stylistic change for the group. While the two records were released almost exactly one year apart, they really are very different artistic statements.

So anyway, Murmur.  Hey I recognize that first song! It’s a re-recorded version of the band’s first single, “Radio Free Europe.” Well one thing’s for sure, this new version is a lot cleaner-sounding and much more professional. Too bad it doesn’t quite have the spark and raw energy of the Hib-Tone original. But a good song is a good song, right?

I ruminated in the introduction to this series that sometimes you have to get into a band at a certain time in your life or it’s too late. I’m not going to say that’s the case with R.E.M. but the major obstacle I face listening to this album is that while it’s considered pretty groundbreaking for its time, so many other bands have drawn inspiration from this style and sound that I feel like I’ve heard it before. But maybe that’s a good thing, as all I’m left with is the quality of the music.

And this is a quality album, no doubt. I think Murmur will be one of those “grower” albums, as on a second and third listen it’s grabbing me more than it did initially. One of the things I appreciate about this album is the economy. There are no unnecessary notes, drum fills, or vocals here at all. It’s a careful and studied album but one with real heart.

Oh, before I go any further – I can’t recommend the deluxe anniversary edition of Murmur enough.  Not so much for the extra tracks as for the sound of the original 12 songs. The cleaned up version of the album breathes and sings in a way that the original version I heard did not. It’s as if a layer of gauze has been stripped off, and it really allowed me to connect with the songs much more.

Speaking of songs, let’s talk about some of them — “Pilgrimage” is backed by some really nice production atmospherics, while “Laughing” is carried along quite nicely by Peter Buck’s ringing arpeggios.  I guess I’ll just have to get used to Michael Stipe’s Sphinx-like lyrics on these and pretty much all of the other tracks. The first new song to really catch my attention the first time around was “Moral Kiosk,” which reminded me pleasantly of the Chronic Town EP but with a more traditional rock edge.

The first side of Murmur, if you will, ends with the very nice ballad “Perfect Circle.” I wish I knew what the hell the lyrics were about, but that doesn’t take away from the beauty of the song (which was later revealed to be written mostly by drummer Bill Berry).  Stipe’s vocal melody on the chorus is excellent.

While the first half of Murmur is good, it’s the last half dozen tracks that really make this album for me. “Catapult” is not the only track where the band wears its Byrds influence on its sleeve, but it’s one of the better ones. Buck’s simple but vivacious strumming elevates the chorus here. Unfortunately a really good song is undone a bit by a lame fadeout. C’mon guys.

The rest of the record is one strong tune after another. “Sitting Still” is so damn simple but so damn catchy. The off-kilter “9-9” positively bounces off the walls with its nervous energy, ringing guitars, and super-punchy bass. This is alternative rock at its best if you ask me. Nice piano work brings an extra dimension to “Shaking Through,” which also boasts a neat little 20-second coda. And Decemberists fans, listen to “We Walk” and tell me Colin Meloy didn’t have Murmur in his record collection at some point.

While I’m not ready to declare Murmur indispensable as so many others have done, it’s a very good album and I can see how it laid the groundwork for so many other artists to come. I think the sequencing could have been a little better, the record seems a bit back-loaded.

Favorite songs: “Pilgrimage”, “Laughing”, “Perfect Circle”, “Catapult”, “Sitting Still”, “9-9”

Now Reckoning, that album just spoke to me right away. It’s much more immediate and hummable, but by no means overtly commercial. I can hear this record’s influence on two separate genres — indie rock and alt-country — all at once. I can’t say that it’s better than Murmur, but it’s much more open and accessible to a newcomer like myself.

The first thing I noticed right away was that Reckoning is a bigger R.E.M. record.  There is a lot more low end and the songs have more sonic punch. I read that producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon set out to capture the feel of live R.E.M., and it sure sounds like they succeeded (not ever having seen the band live I can’t know for certain).  “Harborcoat,” with its driving rhythms, layered vocals, and almost New Wave guitars, bursts out of the gate with a ton of energy.  The binaural recording style employed for Reckoning is put to good use here.

The thing I enjoy the most about this album is the much bolder and more eclectic songwriting. R.E.M. no longer seems content to use atmosphere and subtle melodies to make their statements; here they go for pleasing chord changes (“So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”) and high levels of energy (“Pretty Persuasion” and “Second Guessing” among others). Stipe sounds much more assured as a vocalist, so I suppose it’s no coincidence that this is the first album where Buck’s guitar playing isn’t the only star of the show.

Above all, Reckoning brims with confidence.  The songwriting is more assured and daring, but it’s the energy and skill of the performances that carries the day. A song like “Second Guessing” would probably have been about a half-step slower on Murmur, but here it chugs along so quickly it sounds in danger of going off the rails. And just when I thought that the band had locked into a singular style with this album, out of my headphones comes “Time After Time (AnnElise)”, with its wall of percussion and top-notch chorus.

The energy built up over the first seven songs allows a slower tune like “Camera” and a countrified number like “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” to make an even greater impact. It’s here, on the back end of Reckoning, where the variety of songwriting really pays dividends. Capping off this excellent record is the travelogue number “Little America,” a recounting of R.E.M.’s hectic and non-stop touring schedule. It features one of Stipe’s more direct set of lyrics and is a great bookend to “Harborcoat.” And then before you now it, the song’s over. Damn.

Favorite songs: “Harborcoat”, “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”, “Time After Time (AnnElise)”, “Camera”, “Little America”

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