Friday, November 8, 2013
Murmur Was the Best R.E.M. Album
This is well argued, but wrong:
There is almost no comparison between Murmur and Green. That's because Murmur is their best album by a country mile. There is nothing else that sounds like it and you could release it today and people would still be amazed by it.
R.E.M. released five "indie" albums before Green, and, with the exception of Fables of the Reconstruction, all were far superior to Green and you could rank R.E.M.'s albums by going Murmur, Document, Reckoning, Life's Rich Pageant and then everything else. I don't count anything after Green as being worthy of the 4/5ths of their output for the IRS label. I would put Monster and Up among some of the most indulgent pieces of shit ever released. Let us not forget that Monster actually has a song on it that pays tribute to Courtney Love.
Murmur was as different from American popular music as possible and still listenable, popular and accessible. It was the sound of the hip American dorm room, circa 1983, and it put them on the road through almost every single American city for years. Between 1983 and 1987, R.E.M. conquered America with four classic albums, a near miss classic, and a live sound that elevated the art form. They were, by 1987, the best live band in America, bar none.
Green came out at exactly the moment that America was rejecting everything R.E.M. stood for. Released on election day, 1988, the country swooned for the first George Bush and turned a blind eye towards the horrors of America's war in Central America and environmentalism. It was a country that loved Guns and Roses, Van Halen and Bon Jovi a hell of a lot more than original roots rock. They were a great live band on the Green World Tour, but it broke them. It ended them as a relentless live act. It left the band unable to tour for years. American Arenas were filled with people in leather pants and ripped T-shirts who preferred their favorite bands to wear spandex, lip stick, hair spray, and anything but a black Rickenbacker guitar.
Timing is the key to understanding why Green was a failure. A sellout of the independent spirit of music. A commercial attempt at pleasing a major label. And what hurt it was the fact that, by 1988, vinyl was dead and compact discs were the only viable format for releasing music. I bought Murmur and Reckoning and Chronic Town (which is, properly, their first album and should have been issued with enough tracks to make it a debut) on vinyl and they were far superior in that shape and form. R.E.M. is a band you have to enjoy on vinyl.
Nobody heard Green on vinyl, if at all. Does it even exist? Probably, but more likely as a reissue. Would that fact matter if the marketing formats hadn't changed, almost overnight, in that time period? The singles for Green were also issued as mini-CDs and cassette singles. I still have those and they are bloodless and cheap to listen to. R.E.M.'s B-sides also failed to impress me at the time. They used snippets and unformed ideas to flesh out their promotional releases and eschewed the glory of their previous efforts.
R.E.M. did not suffer the same fate that their colleagues experienced when the whole roots rock thing collapsed. Everybody who invested in acoustic instruments and jangly tunes watched in horror as rap music went mainstream and disappeared into a dance music haze. There is nothing you can dance to when it comes to R.E.M. (noodle dancing doesn't count, and never, ever watch the video for Shiny Happy People unless you want to see the visual incarnation of body odor and overindulgence).
I don't mean to bag on that era of R.E.M. because it wasn't all bad. Green did not embarrass the band, but I am not convinced that it pleased a lot of the people who saw them play live in the mid-1980s in small venues. Yeah, you can enjoy the mandolins and the hits, but you can't escape the fact that nobody would consider Green anything other than a curiosity that didn't pay off. It was the precursor to Losing My Religion, and how'd that work out?