12 Months Of Murmur: August

R.E.M. released Murmur, their fizzy, aching full-length debut, in 1983. It became Rolling Stone’s top album of the year and helped propel the band in a steady climb to become one of the biggest in the world. Murmur has 12 songs — at least two are serious contenders for best in their catalog — and as you’ll recall, years have 12 months. This project, 12 Months of Murmur, is my attempt to match the songs on the album (via mood or sound or narrative, etc.) with how I lived the months of 2017. Each entry is posted on the last day of the given month. Next up: August.

“Radio Free Europe”

This week, I did something I don’t often do: I traveled for work. It’s a cool feeling, flying out and staying in a hotel on the company dime, though I think its luster would obviously wear off fairly quickly if I did it regularly. I’ve seen Up in the Air. I know what could happen.

My previous treks haven’t been all that glamorous visually speaking—to Sheffield, U.K. for a One Direction concert and to Cleveland for the 2015 Alternative Press Music Awards)—but they were extremely fun and pushed me outside of my comfort zone in terms of both location and scope. This latest trip, however, was an absolute juggernaut: to Los Angeles for an entire week, in the lead-up to (and for the occasion of) the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards. There’s a lot to say about L.A. and even more left to ponder about it now that I’m back in New York, but I’ll leave that for another time. Until then, I’ve got a Spotify playlist ready to bring me back, mentally, courtesy of a few quick taps.

How all this ties into R.E.M. is dubious, of course, because it doesn’t really. But it may link to the weird obscurities that dwell inside “Radio Free Europe,” a song I lived nearly 20 years before appreciating fully. It’s an easy song of only a few chords and an uncomplicated melody, so it’s not hard to get behind if you’re into its brand of scrappy post-punk. What its inscrutable lyrics suggest is possibility: “Callin’ on in transit / Callin’ on in transit / Radio Free Europe / Radio Free Europe.” Historically, Radio Free Europe provided Soviet-adjacent countries with information that might’ve otherwise been withheld. Emotionally, the song works the same way, its blurriness providing an empty easel propping up a white board of opportunity for scrawling ideas. Just like when I walked into my hotel room after a long day of work last week only to find—surprise!—the radio on.

As Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” filled the chamber, I scouted where the messes had been buffed out. The sheets smoothed and tight. The trash bins empty. The towels restocked high. It was a completely blank and sterile scene, but the tune made it somehow palatable, like maybe it had been tidied up by humans after all (though the craftsmanship suggested otherwise). Maybe that’s why the housekeepers leave the radio on: to inject humanity into an otherwise barren, but perfectly clean, hotel room. Likely, they do it so you can feel like you have some company as you enter and set your bag down before reaching for a tiny bottle of spring water and plop down onto the king bed. And that’s a nice feeling!

But it’s also nice to pretend that they’re in on it, that they know the charade of flipping a hotel room is Sisyphean and that every white surface will eventually gray with use and age. “Radio Free Europe,” however, still sounds as fresh and explosive as it did in 1983—or 1981, if you listen to the faster Hib-Tone single the band recorded earlier. (The ‘83 Late Night version is also killer.)

No more hotels for me, not for a while anyway. But “Radio Free Europe” sounds just as good right in the living room.