I don't think you have to be my shrink or share a bed with me to realise that I have a fondness for what Mozart called 'A little loud music'. The kind of lung-sighs that are these days passed off as wondrous emotive music makes my eyes roll so much that I've had to go to the opthalmologist at least thrice in the last one year to check for snapped retinal strings. So it may come as a surprise that I've opened up my carefully controlled bottle of Jack Daniel's to celebrate the reissue of three landmark albums that aren't filled with songs that make dogs start howling at the moon.
R.E.M. may now be in the critically humidored room of contemporary rock legends that VH1 celebrates at late hours. But when this band from Georgia came up with their debut album Murmur in 1983 to critical acclaim, Michael Stipes' proud-to-be-an-arts-students vocals, Peter Buck's literally plucky guitars, Mike Mills' melodic bass and (now former band member) Bill Berry's carnivalesque drumming went deep-diving against the flow of popular sound. This was the year, you must remember, also of Michael Jackson's Thriller and the Police's Synchronicity, both albums that were rather frenetic and, well, thrilling.
Murmur was — is — inchoate and atmospheric with a vengeance. The opening number 'Radio Free Europe', that comes pogoing out of an echo chamber has a punk riff with a smoke trail tagged to it. And the words, delightfully pointless to fathom (“Keep me out of country in the word/ Deal the porch is leading us absurd/ Push that, push that, push that to the hull.”) make perfect internal sense. There's a British post-punk sound to songs like 'Pilgrimage', 'Laughing' and 'Sitting still', a cross between the Proclaimers' play of harmonies and the National's broodiness. A song like 'Catapult' is emblematic of Murmur as a whole, dark guitar twists and fritters into minor notes before breaking into bar room pop-rock chorus, gilded by Stipes' alchemic words, “Ooo, we were little boys/Ooo, we were little girls/It's nine o'clock, don't try to turn it off/ Cowered in a hole, opie mouth./Question: Did we miss anything?/Did we miss anything?/Did we miss anything?/ Did we miss anything?”
The slow-simmer brilliance of Murmur continues in the 1984 Reckoning with an additional ballroom flavour, the opening number 'Harborcoat' forseeing a frisky 'Shiny happy people' R.E.M. but with a sonic landscape that remains incomparable. '(Don't go back to) Rockville' plays with the hillbilly flavour while there's an old 60s moody pop tune buried in 'Southern Central Rain (I'm sorry)'. 'Camera' has the slow tune of smoke if smoke had a sound.
If listening to Reckoning after Murmur gives a certain pattern to life in my living room, then Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) tears up any script. 'Feeling gravity's pull' welcomes us to an oblique world where simplicity is a buffoon's dictionary. Numbers like 'Driver 8' (not an embryonic version of 'Imitation of life' from R.E.M.'s 2001 album Reveal but a pre-mutated one), 'Old man Kensey' and 'Good advice' are shimmering sonic buildings. 'Green grow the rushes' has a ghostly air to it. As Stipes sings, “Green grow the rushes go/ The compass points the workers home/ Pay for your freedom, find another gate/ Guilt by associate, the rushes wilted a long time ago/ guilty as you go”, I'm left stunned by its beauty.
All three of these special 'deluxe edition' reissues come with an accompanying live album CD, the third coming in a box loaded with a poster and cards for the R.E.M. fan. But just basking in these early R.E.M. songs is like getting wet in a bathtub full of sound.