Kudzu. That was one of the first things I noticed about Georgia. The view from the car window on our drive down from Ohio revealed a glossy green vine that seemed to be everywhere.
“What is that growing over everything?” was one of my first questions about this strange place my parents had brought us to live in the summer of 1988. The second one being “why is the dirt orange?”
Kudzu as it turned out was an invasive species, brought to the U.S. from Japan in 1876 and introduced to the Southeast in 1883, where it was originally marketed as a decorative plant for shading porches, and where it now covers nearly seven and a half million acres. What started as an ornamental vine quickly revealed itself to be toxic, strangling native foliage and covering entire fields under a hardy blanket of leaves.
I was eleven when my family invaded the south, still barely young enough to be exploring our new physical environs in a way I’m not sure I would have had I been even a year older. On bike rides with my brothers, I discovered the red clay that gave the soil its unusual color, along with fire ants, ferocious mosquitoes, and relentless humidity that, like kudzu, had a way of devouring everything in sight. Between the two, it seemed to me that my new world was muffled.
“Muffled” is also one of the words I’d use to describe R.E.M.’s debut album, Murmur. The cover art depicts a field overgrown with kudzu that has engulfed an abandoned train station before dying off itself. Looking at it you can practically smell the earth, the rot, hear the moldy crackle the leaves would make as you made your way through the field.
I discovered R.E.M. the year after my family’s move to southern climes—the video for “Orange Crush” was on heavy rotation on MTV, and Green made its way to my tape deck not long afterwards. Once I’d worn that out, I worked my way backwards through the band’s canon via dubs of whatever albums I could get my hands on. I started with Eponymous, R.E.M.’s first compilation, and then went back through the overt politicism of Document, back through the dreamy folklore of Life’s Rich Pageant, back through the nerviness of Fables of the Reconstruction, passing over Reckoning because I never got a copy, and then settling on Murmur and Chronic Town, the EP that preceded it, where I landed and stuck around for a while.
There was something about the band’s sound at that period that captivated the me of 13, and it continues to captivate me now—although R.E.M. remains one of my favorite bands 25+ years later, these are the only records I regularly return to. Much of Murmur sounds like it was recorded underwater—a clangy, murky sound, like something submerged. And yet there is urgency in it, too. The taut production and jangly guitars overlaid with inscrutable lyrics that later became R.E.M.’s trademark sound is here in its infancy, years before the songs became more coherent and the band became iconic. In Murmur it’s just mysterious as hell, and, for my money, therein lies the album’s enduring appeal.
I’m not sure Murmur is what you’d call an accessible record. With a few memorable exceptions—“not everyone can carry the weight of the world” from “Talk About the Passion” comes to mind—the lyrics defy interpretation. They’re a disjointed mess of imagery (“scratch those candles in the twilight”) juxtaposed with nonsensical declarations (“you’re so much more attractive / inside your moral kiosk”) that don’t describe so much as evoke.
But somehow it works—the record overflows with emotion. “Radio Free Europe,” the album’s opener and the band’s first single, conveys both longing and a call to action—to what is up to the listener. “Catapult,” with its references to childhood, “ooh, we were little boys / ooh, we were little girls,” and its bouncy refrain, is a heady cocktail of exuberance and nostalgia. And cueing up “Perfect Circle” with the lights off and the ambient noise of nighttime around you is a sure way to get right into your feelings.
Murmur was recorded in the thick of the band’s formative years, a time when they would have been discovering things about themselves, each other, and making music; exploring their own environs, mental, physical, and otherwise. And as such, the lyrics don't seem written so much as retrieved from somewhere deep in Michael Stipe's subconscious. He didn’t quite know what he was on about yet, a fact he’s readily admitted in dozens of interviews over the years. But as with any creative endeavor, he and the rest of the band were making it up as they went along, feeling their way in the dark.
I was surprised to discover when I was researching this essay that, like me, no one in the band was strictly a Southerner. Michael Stipe was an army brat born in Decatur, Georgia who moved around when he was a kid and attended high school in Illinois before returning to attend the University of Georgia in Athens, where the band met. Peter Buck was born in California and moved to Roswell, Georgia when he was 14. Bill Berry was born in Minnesota and landed in Macon, Georgia as a teen, and Mike Mills was also born in California before moving to Georgia at the age of 10.
This is notable because R.E.M. is considered a quintessentially Southern band—when people hear of the town of Athens, the band is often the first they think of. Granted, that their sound was forged on the fertile soil of the storied south and the region’s influence is apparent throughout most of their work, but there’s something revelatory about the knowledge that the boys themselves were largely forged elsewhere. It leads me to a question I find myself asking more and more the older I get: how much of our lives are determined by what we’re exposed to versus what’s inside of us?
If the band had met anywhere else, would they still have turned out music that has influenced and continues to influence me and *millions* of other musicians and music lovers? If my family had moved to, say, Missouri instead of Georgia, would R.E.M. have struck the chord in my heart that’s still reverberating all these years later? Or would I have stumbled onto another band from, I don’t know, St. Louis, whose oeuvre would have had the same impact? Was it just a function of finding the music that matched the landscape that matched the era that grabbed me? Or something deeper? I’m honestly not sure—but then I also can’t imagine a world where I haven’t sung “Gardening at Night” at the top of my lungs with the windows down dozens of times on Route 316 between Athens and Atlanta, so maybe that’s the answer.
There’s a famous quote attributed to Michelangelo that says, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” There’s a not-so-famous quote I came across recently in a novel by Anthony Marra called A Constellation of Vital Phenomena that says, “Perhaps our deepest love is already inscribed within us, so its object doesn’t create a new word but instead allows us to read the one written.” These ring true to me. Lately it seems that in the business of creating art—and in the business of creating ourselves—our influences matter, but it’s the process of uncovering what’s inside that matters most. If you’ll allow me to use kudzu as a metaphor—surely you must have known it would come back at some point—you can choose where you pare the weed back and where you allow it to grow, but there’s not much you can do about what’s underneath it.