Murmur (2005), by J. Niimi
Carefully researched and attentive to small, significant details, J. Niimi’s 33 1/3 book on R.E.M.’s Murmur is one of the best I’ve read so far in this series; and if the four parts of the book aren’t quite integrated, that’s because there are genuine difficulties in trying to account for (i) the history of the band and their cultural context, (ii) the recording of the album, (iii) the album artwork and what it tells us about the record, and (iv) the lyrics.
The jacket of the book tells us that Niimi has worked as a studio engineer, producer, and engineer, and his LinkedIn page adds some detail, saying that he is drummer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, engineer, producer, etc., for Ashtray Boy. I’m sorry to admit I’ve never heard of this band and their nine albums, but it’s clear that Niimi knows whereof he speaks. The second chapter, the song-by-song analysis, is particularly impressive for its knowledge of recording techniques; in writing it Niimi has had the benefit of interviewing producer Mitch Easter. So we find out, for example, that the acoustic guitar in ‘Laughing’ was achieved by having Peter Buck, Mitch Easter and Don Dixon all playing a guitar into a single mike, then recording another track with the tape speed tweaked minutely. Or we learn that Bill Berry produced a particular pssh-pssh sound using some old oak flooring run through an over-modulated compressor. Niimi assumes that his readership is happy with some talk of ‘resolution back to the tonic chord’ and that sort of basic musicological vocabulary.
If there’s a concomitant problem in this chapter its that Niimi hasn’t at this point presented a strong thesis about the album, and so there’s a danger that we can’t see the wood for the trees, the oak flooring, and the Rotosound drum heads. In this chapter of the book Niimi doesn’t aim to evoke the experience of listening to the album: I listened to it a lot at one time, but haven’t given it a spin for ten years or so; I found as he talked me through the tracks that I could recall some of the details, but less than was the case elsewhere in the book when he did allow himself a more impressionistic and evocative language.
Niimi begins the book with a narrative account of the coming-together of the band, their early gigs, and their recording of the Chronic Town EP: there’s a particular concentration on different recording studios and what they were able to offer, but not at the high magnification of the second chapter.
After the track-by-track analysis, the third chapter pulls back, considering in some detail the album’s cover image of the invasive plant kudzu. There’s some (to my mind) digressive material (pp.55-61) on the cassette tape as a medium for the distribution of music (a wholly inadequate one when it comes to cover art), but kudzu takes Niimi to some interesting places: it opens up the question of the ‘southernness’ (in the American sense) of the album, and how far we can understand Murmur as ‘Gothic’. There’s also a really interesting section (pp.74-8) on the phenomenology of reverb and the imaginary sound spaces that studios can produce, and a citation of an intriguing-sounding essay, David Rothenberg’s ‘The Phenomenology of Reverb’. (Sadly the book has no Works Cited, but it seems as if the essay in question was first published in 2001, and has only ever existed on the internet; the version I’ve found post-dates Niimi’s book.) Niimi’s technical knowledge comes into play here, but there’s a larger thesis at work, which instantly recalled the non-naturalistic spaces of Murmur and their unsettling effect on the listener.
The final chapter, on lyrics and interpretation, offers what might be the book’s standout contribution (if we were assessing it on scholarly grounds), in that Niimi identifies and summarises an essay that Stipe had read while a student, Walker Percy’s ‘Metaphor as Mistake’, The Sewanee Review, 66, no. 1 (Winter, 1958). Unfortunately for anyone working in English Lit, the essay as summarised doesn’t say anything very distinctive: in short, there is a shaky if not arbitrary relation between signifier and signified, and this means that the reader will always be required to bring something to interpretation. While this might have been a brave thing for Percy to write in the context of the New Criticism and the ‘affective fallacy’, by the era of post-structuralism, it was a familiar theme. (I should, I admit, go and read Percy’s essay for myself.)
The chapter gets much better when it examines the lyrics themselves. In particular, it makes some illuminating observations about the absence of the first-person singular and, in other ways, the impersonality of Stipe’s lyrics. There’s an illuminating contrast with Gary Numan’s characteristic pose of impersonality and alienation — a dramatisation of alienation, or a thematisation of it — against Stipe’s more genuinely peculiar approach: ‘On Murmur there are words and there is singing, but there is no singer’ (p.100). This is insightful stuff, and I’m only sorry that by this point, Stipe and the words have become the almost exclusive focus: I’d have like the book more if Niimi had found a structure that enabled him to talk about the music and the singing and the words at the same time. Perhaps longer track-by-track analyses might have allowed for a more holistic approach, though this difficulty with that form would have been that most of the main issues would have to be dispatched in the analysis of the first track, leaving the later analyses looking thin, or artificially looking for difference where none really exists.