12 Months Of Murmur: February

R.E.M. released Murmur, their fizzy, aching full-length debut, in 1983. That year, it famously beat out Michael Jackson’s Thriller as Rolling Stone’s top album 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: February.

“Moral Kiosk”

A 9-to-5 schedule will drain you. Your non-work hours, once naively filled with creative promise, become times to obsess over the decisions you made, either wondering if they’re correct or trying to expunge them from your brain altogether. And work is work, even if work is fun (sometimes). Where does creativity fit now? Answer: wherever you can fit it.

“Moral Kiosk” isn’t really about the sacrifices creative young professionals make at the expense of a steady gig—is any R.E.M. song of the era really about a specific idea, aside from “Talk About the Passion”?—but its language invokes the kind of pretzel logic familiar to anyone who’s had to navigate this kind of career. “So much more attractive inside the moral kiosk” goes Michael Stipe on the chorus, which is obtuse and relatable and also maybe sexual. There’s mention of “idle hands” and a “roving eye” and a “magic pillow,” but most exciting parts of the song are when Stipe falls into a wobbly harmony with Mike Mills and Bill Berry on the post-chorus vowels. In fact, the most celebrated bits of a lot of early R.E.M. tunes are these paisley bursts that defy easy categorization: an avalanche of ahs here, a four-note bass flourish there. That’s the good stuff. Why? Because it feels right.

February felt right too, at least some of it. It felt right to start running again and give concert tickets away in favor of a 9 p.m. bedtime and spend a Sunday wandering around Brooklyn with no clear destination. The kicker, of course, is the reason why I did these things: to beat back the clawing stress and crunching feeling the 9-to-5 schedule exacerbates. That’s what “Moral Kiosk,” on its most basic sonic level (leaving aside its subterranean, obscure sexuality), sounds like—the merging of two wild worlds. Your strung-out workdays are personified by bent guitar lines, and those off-the-clock hours that rapidly, randomly morph into exultations of joy? Those last 30 seconds of pure, chaotic, narcotic, primal bliss.