West Of The Fields

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.

We Walk

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.

Shaking Through

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.

Sitting Still

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.

Perfect Circle

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.

Moral Kiosk

July 18, 2007

The subject matter of “Moral Kiosk” is obscure, but two things are clear enough: It’s got something to do with hypocrisy, and there’s an undeniable spark of sexuality buried beneath its sharp chord changes, odd harmonies, and brisk beat. The song churns and burns with a hidden, repressed passion that reveals itself in eroticized rituals, coded messages, and stifled aggression. The song sounds just as uptight as the stuffy ideologues it seems to critique — the track is charged up with a libidinous energy that continues to build up without ever getting much of a release.

Talk About The Passion

June 13, 2007

“Talk About The Passion” is a very worried song — the lyrics are a bit vague and elliptical, but it’s essentially about feeling powerless to help people in need — but it’s dressed up in an arrangement that emphasizes the singer’s generosity and sensitivity rather than his frustration or helplessness. The key moment in the piece is the realization that “not everyone can carry the weight of the world,” and though that line comes during a relatively dense passage in the song, a few moments later the weight is lifted, and the chorus rises up with an effortless grace.


May 10, 2007

A lot of Murmur‘s distinct charm and singular beauty comes from the way Mitch Easter and Don Dixon were able to engineer  the recordings so that even mundane elements such as snare hits and arpeggiated acoustic guitar figures could sound slightly, inexplicably alien. The surreal effect of “Laughing” is at least partially due to their subtle technical prowess. Their elaborate layers of guitar overdubs achieve their desired effect so gracefully that they are nearly imperceptible, and their stark mix highlights the negative space in the arrangement, which in turns emphasizes the song’s dreamy, ethereal quality.

In spite of some flashy rototom flourishes, Bill Berry’s percussion is typically clever and understated. The best bit comes when he shifts into a brisk disco beat on the abbreviated third chorus, bumping up the section’s sense of urgency without calling attention to the dynamic shift. Nearly every change in “Laughing” is like a subliminal suggestion, and the resulting effect feels a bit like traveling from one place to another without having a solid recollection of being in transit.


May 1, 2007

“Pilgrimage” is the first in a series of songs throughout R.E.M.’s discography that express a distrust of authority and a feeling that people — or the people — are being led astray by charlatans and crooks. The language in “Pilgrimage” is oblique in terms of who or what Michael Stipe is addressing, but his skepticism is rather obvious. The tone of the song is very dark and moody, but I would stop short of characterizing it as being pessimistic. After all, given what we can extrapolate from the lyrics, it’s difficult not to conclude that the “pilgrimage” is a questionable, malign , or futile pursuit, and so when Stipe assures us that “this will not last,” I’m assuming that he’s hoping for the best.

The track begins with a brief, disorienting snippet of the chorus that is filtered to sound — in the words of the song — “clipped and distant” before the song’s vaguely creepy fugal bass motif kicks in at the 11 second mark. The verses seem to crawl along the floor before rising up dramatically on the choruses, but rather than achieve the soft-to-loud dynamics of 90s alt-rock, the effect is more akin to cutting a string tethering a helium balloon to a brick.

Radio Free Europe

April 3, 2007

R.E.M. began their recorded career with “Radio Free Europe,” a song that seems to deliberately challenge the audience’s compulsion to sing along with upbeat rock anthems by rendering its words either incomprehensible or nonsensical. There’s some implication of political content, but not nearly enough information to indicate the singer’s position, or what he may be railing against. Intentionally or not, “Radio Free Europe” forces the listener to question their identification with a set of lyrics that make very little literal sense, and possibly reevaluate how they respond to other songs that employ similar musical formulas to elicit an affirmative response. The song suggests an intriguing rhetorical question: If we sing along to a pop song, are we on some level agreeing with and endorsing its lyrical content, and if so, can a good tune con us into lending our passive approval to potentially harmful concepts?