June 13, 2008
As the final song on Murmur, “West Of The Fields” revisits the core themes of the record — dreams, mythology, difficulty with communication, synesthesia — bringing the album full circle, while ending on what feels more like a set of ellipses rather than a declarative full stop. This is very appropriate to the general aesthetic of Murmur — it’s enigmatic, off-kilter, and aloof; it makes perfect sense that it’d just mumble some cryptic words and sprint off into the distance in its final moments.
In the broadest sense, “West Of The Fields” appears to be a song about the significance of the dreamscape and its connection to our understanding of the waking world and the collective unconscious. Michael Stipe describes a “dream of living jungle” as if it were a distant memory of a primal state, and that thought overlaps with a dream of the Elysian fields — the final resting place of the heroic in Greek mythology. It’s hard to tell what Stipe is implying, or if he’s really trying to make a statement at all, but there seems to be some line drawn from the notions of religion and mythology to the uncivilized, untamed nature of animals in the wild. Either scene would seem to take place in some idealized past, and the tone of the song suggests a feeling of dread, particularly when the chorus hits. (Mike Mills’ backing vocals in the call-and-response seem especially panicked in contrast with Stipe’s more defiant tone.)
Of all the songs on Murmur, “West Of The Fields” has the greatest feeling of urgency, to the point that it feels vaguely like a horror movie. This is due largely to Bill Berry’s brisk tempo, and the range of textures in Peter Buck’s uncharacteristically complicated chord progression. Amid many intriguing chords and flourishes, the most memorable bit is arguably Mills’ vaguely funky descending bass line at the end of each verse.
April 8, 2008
If you take the whole of Murmur as something that takes place over the course of one long night, the spritely “We Walk” is like a brisk stroll in the waning moonlight, just before dawn. The tune sounds especially perky and innocent, but its child-like tone is tempered by a slight drowsiness, and faint, ominous booms that punctuate the track like distant thunder. (R.E.M. trivia buffs ought to know that this sound was created by manipulating the recording of balls colliding on a pool table.)
Michael Stipe’s explanation for the song’s lyrical content is somewhat intriguing. Apparently it’s based on visiting a place in Athens called the Print Shop. To get to the main room, one would have to go up a flight of stairs and through a bathroom, where occasionally there would be a person bathing with their arm leaning over the edge of the tub, recalling Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Jean-Paul Marat, the French Revolutionary who was stabbed to death in his bath by an assassin. It’s an odd and striking image to be sure, but it’s a curious basis for a song, especially since there is so little to the lyrics aside from the repetition of this sideways allusion to a famous painting.
February 18, 2008
If Murmur is about anything at all, it’s about communication. More accurately, its songs attempt to articulate the state of being entirely inarticulate, or unable to process the way other people express themselves. There’s a sense of confusion in just about every track, but more than that, a genuine effort to overcome this mess of miscommunication. “Shaking Through” begins with a statement of resigned frustration — “could it be that one small voice doesn’t count in the room?” — but as the song carries along, it finds its grace in the sound of the music, if not its words. “Shaking through / opportune” may look terrible and obtuse in print, but that chorus sounds absolutely glorious on record, as the piano, rhythm, and harmony come together like a gentle wave of compassion and humility. Even more is conveyed in the song’s bridge, in which Michael Stipe sings the line “in my life…” over a few bars, but never completes the thought, as though he cannot find the words to express what he’s feeling, and jumped the gun a bit because he was so eager to be understood. It’s an awkward moment that we all recognize from life, but the band have turned it into something rather gorgeous and sublime.
February 5, 2008
“9-9” is essentially an abstraction, but its dominant emotions ring loud and clear — paranoia, frustration, agitation, and confusion. It is by far the most aggressive song on Murmur, but since it lacks a focus for its negativity, it comes off as an expression of impotence. The singer feels trapped by his neuroses, entirely unable to overcome his crippling “conversation fear.” The band draws on the tension and restrained aggression of post-punk in general and Gang Of Four in particular, but contrast the harsh metallic clang of the chords and the nervous, pacing quality of the bass line with a pensive guitar arpeggio and a subtly, barely audible organ drone that even out the mood and keep us aware that this is all happening in the mind of a passive, painfully shy individual.
October 23, 2007
Most of the lyrics in “Sitting Still” are either incoherent or extremely inscrutable, but two lines ring out with the utmost clarity: “I can hear,” and “Can you hear me?” At its core, the song is expressing an anxiety about communication that carries over to next track on the album, “9-9.” Michael Stipe makes a point of noting that he’s aware that the person he’s addressing is capable of reading and hearing, but he’s afraid that he’s not being understood. If you fast-forward eight years, a similar dilemma comes up in “Losing My Religion,” though that song offers more in the way of context. “Sitting Still” sounds fantastic (thanks in large part to Peter Buck’s crisp arpeggios and Mike Mills and Bill Berry’s typically clever harmony vocals), but aside from a few key lines and its chorus, the lyrics give very little away, and largely convey a sense of hearing someone without understanding them at all. I like to think that effect was deliberate, but really, it’s just as well either way.
September 9, 2007
Appropriately enough, my strongest memory of Murmur is tied to a vague, murky recollection of a cold, lonely night circa January 1994. My parents and siblings were off someplace for the evening, and I remember listening to the album — which I’d only owned for a couple weeks at that point — in the living room with all the lights out. The only bits of illumination came from outside the window — the lamp post from across the street, and the dim glow from the snowbanks. I listened to the entire record, but only “Catapult” is tied in with this memory. Maybe it’s because it was my initial favorite? Or perhaps it’s got something to do with the words — the nostalgia for childhood, the specific reference to the time of day, the feeling that something fun or beautiful is happening someplace else, but you’re not there. There’s something so cheerful in Peter Buck’s jaunty chord progressions and Michael Stipe’s exclamations on the chorus, but also sort of distant and obscure. It’s as though the song is a big party, but there’s a secret password needed to get inside.
August 17, 2007
The gorgeous, spectral piano tone in “Perfect Circle” is one of the most distinct and evocative sounds in the entire R.E.M. discography. The part was recorded on two pianos simultaneously for the studio recording, and though that is not immediately apparent, there’s a subtle harmonic variation that exaggerates the slightly unreal quality of the sound. As with much of Murmur, Don Dixon and Mitch Easter were able to record simple, straightforward parts in a way that so well captured the essential sound of the instruments that they seem somewhat surreal in the context of more ambiguous aspects of the arrangements — in this case, Michael Stipe singing near the bottom of his register on the verses, and the distant touches of electric guitar that are so carefully placed in the arrangement that they may as well be subliminal suggestions. The bass and percussion parts are crisply recorded and placed in the foreground of the mix, and though they provide a sense of movement through the song, the parts are deliberately minimal, and allow the reverb of the piano part to linger through the piece. It’s an exceptionally beautiful and haunting track, but its emotional center is vague — the lyrics allude to friendship, failing romance, absence, youth, and death, but the scope is a bit unclear, though perhaps that is precisely the point.