I just finished reading J. Niimi’s short book on Murmur, part of Continuum‘s 33 1/3 series on rock albums – and I’d say it’s definitely among the better instances of rock criticism I’ve read. Partly (to use the standard everyone actually uses, even if it’s not cool to admit it) that’s because Niimi snuck into my house secretly, used advanced scientific equipment to steal thoughts from my head, and then transcribed them and claimed them as his own. So much of the way that album works for me is discussed here; I’d grossly paraphrase by saying that Stipe’s language is evocative…but whereas that descriptor usually points to something in particular (“evocative of a late spring evening”), what’s curious is that the object of Stipean evocation is essentially that act of evocation itself. Much of the album’s aesthetic – in everything from its cover art to its sound to, of course, its notoriously worried-over lyrics (by critics – not by Stipe) – is about suggestion but not definition, leaving the listener to fill in what gaps arise between whatever thoughts and images initially assemble in the wake of that aesthetic. (Here‘s what I wrote about lyrics, along those lines, a couple of years ago.)
Niimi places some heavy emphasis on an interview wherein Stipe mentioned Walker Percy’s “Metaphor as Mistake,” whose applicability here is more or less that we sometimes get closer to something by accident, by a metaphor, than by painstakingly setting out to limn reality pebble by pebble. (Percy’s example is his own mishearing as a child of the name of a bird as a “blue dollar hawk” – the actual name is the rather more prosaic “blue darter hawk”: the hawk’s blue, and it darts.) Stipe has always honored the interesting accident – perhaps the best-known example is from “I Believe,” whose lyric originally contained the phrase “between the hours of the day.” Someone misread “horns” for “hours,” and Stipe liked the resulting mistake better. This might also go some way toward the band’s reticence to nail down any definitive reading of the lyrics – it allows listeners to make out what shapes they will through the haze of Stipe’s foghorning voice.*
That haze, by the way, is partly the result of Mitch Easter’s and Don Dixon’s sound design work – and Niimi’s book benefits greatly from his having interviewed Easter and Dixon for in-studio detail. Niimi, like both Easter and Dixon (who has a new album coming out soon), has worked as both a musician and a recording engineer, so he knows what he’s talking about – but don’t worry, this isn’t an obsessive gearhead’s enumeration of exactly which microphones, cables, and omnidamped flanged triangles were used in every second of every song. His experience as a musician allows him to render extraordinarily sensitive and insightful readings of the songs’ structure and arrangements: if you never thought what difference it might make when a drummer uses a ride cymbal versus a hi-hat, you will now – and your listening experience will be richer for it.
Probably, not every reader will enjoy every part of this book. In different sections of the book Niimi is pensive autobiographer, music critic, cultural historian, sharp-eyed but unpretentious literary scholar, and philosophical poet; and I suspect not everyone will have all those hats in their millinery. At moments he seems to want to out-Stipe Stipe in weird allusiveness. But at the same time, that diversity means most R.E.M. fans will find at least part of the book interesting. Two of my favorite tidbits: the revelation that in all the lyrics to Murmur, the word “I” occurs in only three places (one of them so buried that most listeners will miss it); and Niimi’s brief disquisition on the contrariness of the word “can’t” as in “you can’t take too many vitamins”: Niimi points out that such a phrase can mean either that “it’s inadvisable to take too many vitamins” or that “there’s no such thing as taking too many vitamins.”
* Which means I can stop being disappointed that some of my favorite lyrics end up being misreadings. In my world, for example, the chorus of “Perfect Circle” is “standing too soon, shoulders high in the wind,” with the first line later substituting “heaven assumes.” Taking off from the “eleven gallows” in the first verse, I interpreted the chorus to be about hanging, and the song itself to address martyrdom – and was quite impressed with Stipe for coming up with such a striking metaphor. Normally, one stands when one is awake, active; to stand is to defy gravity, to assert one’s verticality against the will-toward-horizontality of gravity’s pull. Of course, when a person is hanged, gravity stretches them into a straight vertical line: standing. And “high in the wind” evokes the Western-movie “hang ’em high” imagery. Given all that, “heaven assumes” then becomes obvious: “assume” in an etymological, religious sense (as in the Feast of the Assumption) but also an implication that “heaven” requires a kind of defiance (“shoulders high in the wind”).
Unfortunately, none of that works if you assume Stipe is actually singing “room,” not “wind.” My mistake: I’ll keep it.