“Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.”
I couldn’t believe it upon hearing it. It just didn’t seem real. Twenty-five years? Twenty-five goddamn years. There just didn’t seem any possible way that Murmur, R.E.M.’s debut album, had reached the quarter century milestone. R.E.M. still seems fresh and new. OK, so maybe their youngest member, Mr. Michael Stipe himself, is nearing 50, but their music seems ageless, timeless, infinite. Back in 1983, when those of us who were alive and old enough to be burgeoning music connoisseurs were listening to records, the Beatles’ self-titled “White Album,” Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends and their soundtrack to The Graduate were only 15 years old, and they seemed antiquated at that. Don’t get me wrong, I loved those albums back then when I was twelve, but they seemed like relics of a bygone age, like hieroglyphs on a cave wall, like distant memories of rock and roll’s all but forgotten past. It is thoughts like these that seem to crush my very soul. As I ponder these thoughts, it seems as though the weight of age and the world are on my shoulders.
Of course, Murmur and R.E.M. might just seem as dated as the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel to today’s twelve-year-olds, should I choose to believe that. But, I refuse. Arguments can be made for the harried progression of music between the ’60s and the ’80s in comparison to the `what’s old is new again’ cyclical feel of the ’80s to the present day, but my reasons are far more personal. Murmur was a breakthrough in every sense of the word. By simply refusing to follow the then-current trend of popular music, an anemic revolution of synthesizers within hits that lacked substance and depth, R.E.M. created their own coup. Peter Buck brought back the jangling guitars of the Byrds, but the addition of Mike Mills’ melodious bass, earnest backing vocals and Michael Stipe’s nearly unintelligible, yet poetic, smart and poignant words made the combination something that transformed rock. In the simplest of terms, R.E.M. defined alternative `college’ rock. As such, their early albums transformed the way I listened to music. Liken it to a gunshot fired too close to one’s ear. Though instantaneous and explosive, the shock and echoes linger far longer than the initial burst. I cannot shake Murmur, nor would I ever want to.
Before the fame, the comparisons to arena rock giants U2, the downfalls and the comebacks, R.E.M. were just four youngsters from Athens, Ga. They were in love with music, and impressed by each other’s skills. That innocence and awe helped form the band’s cohesion, but it was their steadfast belief in their sound that birthed what their eventual debut album, the onomatopoeic Murmur, would resemble. After some misfires in the studio with a `polished’ producer, the band insisted on recording with Mitch Easter, the man who helmed their first single, “Radio Free Europe.” Drummer Bill Berry taped his drums from a booth, a method that was considered ancient at the time, and Stipe’s vocals were rarely, if ever, re-recorded. It was through these and other of Easter’s simple and direct methods that brought a sense of immediacy, timelessness and enveloping warmth to the album. It was, upon first release, one for the ages.
Even after 25 years, Michael Stipe’s voice still sounds as it did at a live show performed in the summer of 1983 at Larry’s Hideaway in Toronto. It is this magical performance that makes up the second disc of this new anniversary deluxe edition. I’ve found that I have very few friends who I can speak with after much time has passed and the sound of their voice and the topics of conversation, their joking manner and warmth, make it seem as if that passing time never existed, as if time has folded upon itself putting the two instances in an overlapping event. This is how the Larry’s Hideaway concert seems to me, and really the music of R.E.M. in general. Murmur does not exist in the same dated time warp as most every other album from the early ’80s. It exists outside of time, outside of genre, and outside of any trappings of pop culture. This is only one of the many reasons I can hardly believe that the album’s age is a whopping two-thirds of my own. Because of the inherent qualities of this magnificent record, it simply cannot be. It is the Dorian Gray of rock and roll. While R.E.M.’s band members, and their once young fans bald, grey and wither, Murmur remains forever youthful.
But, it is that concept that becomes both liberating and oppressive. No one wants to get old. A friend of mine recently sent me a group of photos that dated from my college days in the early ’90s. It was difficult to look back at myself, hardly recognizing the boy within. As he said upon sending them to me, “Ah, we were young once, all those years and pounds ago.” Thankfully, upon listening to Murmur, all those years and pounds just wash away, and, forgetting that the album is 25 years old, I am rid of carrying the weight of the world. After all, not everyone can do that.
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