Memories and emotions that will be forever intertwined with R.E.M’s debut album.
1983’s ‘Murmur’ runs the emotional gamut of my 17th and 18th years of life. It takes me back to the highest highs and lowest lows, and odd in-between places. I’ll start with the peak.
It was the summer of 2021… I was on a road trip to New Hampshire with my dad, his girlfriend, and one of my older brothers. My dad brought some of his CDs for us to listen to during the long car rides. I vividly remember him singing along to ‘Sitting Still’, specifically the last line: ‘Can you hear me?’
The staccato guitar drew me in immediately as a Smiths fan. I also remember hearing ‘Catapult’ for the first time during that car ride. Peter’s guitar and Bill’s simple yet effective beat really resonated with me. During this trip, I was in the preliminary stage of my first legitimate romantic relationship with my now ex-boyfriend. We started dating officially while I was away up north. When I heard ‘Sitting Still’ and ‘Catapult’ for the first time, I was emotionally and physically on top of the world. What do I mean by physically, you ask? We visited Mount Washington, which is the highest peak in the Northeastern United States.
When I hear those two songs, I’m back in our 2007 maroon Honda Odyssey watching the landscape fly by, breathing clean air, surrounded by people I love.
Now for the valleys.
Fast forward to the first week of March, 2022. The second semester of my senior year. My boyfriend and I had broken up. My first boyfriend, my other half, my rock. It was my fault - I did a stupid thing without realizing the gravity of my actions. A week passed. I talked about the breakup with my lunch group, which included the boy I had my first kiss with at age 15. He offered to take me out for ice cream to make me feel better. Spending time with him started out friendly enough, getting Coldstone and going back to his house to play Mario Kart. I didn’t actually play, I watched him play as I sat awkwardly on his bedroom floor.
You could cut the tension with a knife.
The next few times we got together, which included visiting Bunnyman Bridge after dark and watching video essays about Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’ in my basement, gradually increased in their intimate nature until, finally, one night we slept together in my room. We slept together, literally: we fell asleep in my bed. I woke to find it had snowed lighty overnight. He was still sleeping. I can picture that moment now, clear as day: sitting up, looking at the soft glow of the winter sun as it illuminated my room through the blinds, his closed eyes, his pale face even whiter in the cold light.
During those tumultuous times, I had been exposed to what is now one of my all-time favorite R.E.M songs. Favorite not so much because of the song itself but more because of the setting I heard it in: ‘We Walk’. My dad played it for me on Spotify, and I later found - and became obsessed with - the 1985 performance of it in Germany at the Rockpalast. Michael Stipe’s bleach blond hair gripped me, I admit it. I did some very light digging into Murmur afterwords and found another current favorite, ‘Laughing’. After Googling the lyrics of both songs I discovered Marat and Laocoon. The thunder sounds in ‘We Walk’, the imagery and backstory in the lyrics, and the context in which I heard the songs were a cocktail of emotions.
This was also around the time of my oldest brother’s birthday. When he came home from college, he brought with him an amazing, expansive sticker book. He, in all his generosity, let me pick two. I chose a white Cocker Spaniel sketch for my PC and a man being strangled by a serpent for the inside cover of my hard copy of Oscar Widle’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’.
Bill’s rim shots in ‘Laughing’ and the thunder in ‘We Walk’ will always send me back to those weeks when I was experiencing a combination of the best and worst feelings of my life. I was flailing, sinking, in regret and panic over my ex, while buzzing with passion from my other reignited relationship.
Last but certainly not least is ‘Pilgrimage’.
December, 2022. My oldest brother makes another appearance in this story. He’s graduating with his second degree and my whole family is there. It should be a wonderful, joyous occasion… and it was, but I was struggling, and struggling badly. In the weeks leading up to his graduation, I had low energy, I was stressed, I wasn’t eating enough after working out, and I was crying every day. My insides felt rotten. The emotional pain I was experiencing was so severe I could physically feel it in my chest. To salt the wound, my Tamagotchi died and I got motion sickness on the car ride to the graduation.
My relationship with my ex was finally reaching its horrible, messy end. I couldn’t focus on anything except grasping at the remains of our relationship, attempting to fix things. There wasn’t any way to fix things at this point, though. It was too late. The wound that results from something like what I did can heal and scar over, but it will never leave you.
Waiting sickly for a text, or any sign of life, from my soon-to-be ex, I took some nausea medication and laid in my aunt’s bed (she lived near my brother’s school at the time) to combat the motion sickness while my dad went out to get food before the ceremony. I still don’t understand how I got so sick. Maybe my immune system was on the fritz from my emotional exhaustion. I decided music was one of the few things that would make me feel the slightest bit better, and I chose ‘Murmur’. Oddly, the only song I can actually remember listening to is ‘Pilgrimage’.
‘Rest assured this will not last/take a turn for the worst’. I felt those words in my core. My relationship was dissolving and slipping out of my hands. It had to get worse before it could get better.
The worst emotional pain I’ve ever experienced, save for the loss of my early childhood dog, was accompanied by a vibraphone and Michael Stipe’s echoed voice.
This album will always have a place in my heart because of its ability to recall formative moments in my life, beautiful and miserable alike.