The music of R.E.M. speaks in many voices, swirling voices searching for a new language through the words of mythology, literature, and Holy Scripture. Like pieces of conversation overheard, the words of R.E.M.’s songs seem to tumble from their music as if by chance, elusive fragments that appear as if they must be pieced together. And although this adds to the mystery of R.E.M.’s music, many critics have consistently accused R.E.M. of inarticulateness, derisively dubbing Murmur, their first album, Mumble.
But it is this ambiguity which is partily responsible for R.E.M.’s success as a critics’ band. Back in 1983 in Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, it was really the collective work of rock critics that enabled the band to place first and second place, respectively, for Album of the Year.
The band’s very name, the abbreviation for Rapid Eye Movement, denotes the ultimate dream state–the life between consciousness and unconsciousness–and this inbetweenness is at the heart of R.E.M.’s music. In fact, in the beginning, Michael Stipe’s mumbled words were a kind of literary device, a conscious attempt to obscure the meaning of the song while forcing the listener to assume responsibility for the meaning of the text.
Those lyrics–garbled catchphrases, broken thoughts, secret references to Athens, Georgia–are like brush strokes on the canvas of the music, impressionistic in intent, defying standard interpretations of rock lyrics. A tale or a poem may not unfold, but what does come through is an urgent message, a cryptic word hurled against the music.
The contrivance of R.E.M.’s ambiguity does possess a certain literariness, each of their early recorded works, like works of short fiction, begging to be decoded by the well-read, the elite, the academic. Music critics have traditionally admired this attribute and motivation in their rock artists (Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell) because it fulfills an ideal of equating rock with litearture as well as reflecting the critics own impulses as “serious writers.”
The import of R.E.M.’s music does not rest solely on literary aspirations. R.E.M.’s music can also be heard and understood as an attempt to convey the mysteries of Southern consciousness. The message is clear on the band’s very first great record, Murmur, on which the cover is nothing more than an eery image of kudzu in winter (an eeriness that all true southerners are familiar with).
In their early incarnation, R.E.M. exhibited a modern awareness of what Southern pop should be (their ’70s pop reference being Big Star from Memphis): the knowledge that meaning emerges through struggle, the idea which is at the very center of Faulkner’s fiction and the South’s history. In rock music, this translates into the sound of a million things happening at once, instruments and voices at odds with each other.
At the beginning, within two years. R.E.M. had released 30 songs spread over an EP and two albums. The exegesis of those songs can be difficult (and its part of the trick). But it is also no easy matter to define R.E.M.’s sound. Because of their ringing harmonies and folk-rock/psychedelic tendencies, R.E.M. was frequently compared to the Byrds, but their music owes a debt as well to Kaleidoscope, Los Angeles lovers of rural traditions (& David Lindley’s first group) as well as a host of ’60s short-lived pop bands like the Left Banke. Other musical influences abound: Jamaican dub, traditional country, Velvet Underground, and even funky soul. (There exists a tape of outtakes from Murmur which includes a cosmic rendition of the frat-party classic, Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up.”)
Early on, a pronounced Southern drawl pervaded every song, and at times, their close-harmony vocals recalled the Southern voices of country gospel singers from Appalachia. R.E.M.’s gift was their ability to re-echo those ancient voices and make them sound new–and ageless. Not unlike the Stanley Brothers or George Jones or any good creator of Southern music, R.E.M. reawakened the past with their music–and made that music seem eternal.
Their sense of the past in the present first came to the surface on “Pilgrimage” from Murmur. Whether or not this song is directly about the annual spring Southern pilgrimage tours of ante-bellum mansions and plantations is Mississippi is irrelevant. As the song develops, the pilgrimage assumes a greater significance–becoming about all returnings, the ever-present need to go home and the desire to rediscover the past.
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