Thursday, August 21, 2008

Try to win and suit your needs

The current issue of Mojo is a belter. Occasionally, my favoured journals produce an edition in which each and every article is resonant and crucial and September’s Mojo is to be acclaimed for its fine array of pieces. Two of its features highlight a pair (I can’t bring myself to type the word ‘brace’ again) of classic albums that are celebrating anniversaries this year and I’ve been revisiting, with no little relish, these recordings on my information pod. The Beatles’ eponymous classic double album, known by the masses as ‘The White Album’, is forty while Murmur, R.E.M.’s mumbled, melancholic masterpiece of a debut, was released five-and-twenty years ago.

I’d suggest there was a period in my life when I played Murmur four or five times a week, on my much-loved and battered old car stereo in my much-loved and battered old car. I would have been wearing desert boots and a plaid shirt. Listening to it again for the first time in ages and having lost some of my familiarity with its songs, I’m staggered how wondrous this long player sounds. Naturally, Perfect Circle exists as the most strikingly beautiful and haunting three and a half minutes in the Athens group’s canon but there are many other moments of greatness and splendour to appreciate. The Stipe fellow’s slanted and enchanted lyrics and, ahem, murmured vocalisations proffer proceedings a murky, dreamy quality with a barrage o’ off-kilter melodies and gee-tar hooks adding a folk-rocky atmosphere that remains irresistible. So many highlights. The first twenty-five seconds of Laughing, with its sparse percussive introduction, evocative and sudden vocal and chiming stringsmithery, is majestic. 9-9 is all Gang of Four austerity and angular menace, a compelling post-punk treasure while the whispered obliqueness of Pilgrimage soars and stuns. Funnily enough, the one song I can live without on Murmur is the opener and single, Radio Free Europe which, for this punter, possesses an over-produced clarity of sound and forceful nature that sits at odds with the understated subtleties of the other eleven numbers. It is a brilliant recording though, and for old time’s sake, I’m going to spin the blighter four or five times this week.

It was once fashionable to suggest that The White Album, if shorn of some of its ‘filler’, could have been one of the greatest single albums ever; it is now modish – and heartening – to notice a new school of thought ululating the proposition that the sprawling, untidy mess of genius, folly and fun should be celebrated for what it is: a hotch-potch of wonder and wit that English popular music has ne’er seen the like of before or since. This is not my most-played Beatles album – Revolver wins that accolade – but so many of these songs are firmly embedded in the old consciousness. For every number I could live without (Piggies, Honey Pie, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey) there are a host of dazzling, clever and essential tracks that maybe I couldn’t. I guess my favourite song is Happiness Is A Warm Gun, a challenging cornucopia of magical moments linked together with aplomb and dexterity. I also adore the pastoral tenderness of Mother Nature’s Son, the fragile and poignant Julia, the lilting whimsy of Dear Prudence and the Nick Drakey acoustic gem, Blackbird. The White Album does appear in many of those Top Albums of All-Time lists and often makes the top ten. I don’t hold it in quite that level of acclaim but I’ve really welcomed its eclectic brew again and, while I know this sounds a bit shallow, I salute the fact that all songs (apart from the experimental musique concrete piece Revolution 9) are all roughly four minutes in length or shorter: one doesn’t have to wait too long for the next jewel.

Happy birthday both.

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