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Lassoing a Cloud

The second of today’s reviews from the November issue of Uncut magazine. Here’s Andrew Mueller’s 3-star review of J. Niimi’s Murmur book:

However many titles finally appear in Continuum’s commendably ambitious 33 1/3 series, it’s unlikely any author will volunteer for a task as thankless as the one which American critic and sometime musician J Niimi has accepted here. Attempting a book-length companion to, and deconstruction of, R.E.M.’s fantastically vague, wilfully incoherent 1983 debut was always going to be akin to lassoing a cloud. Inevitably, Niimi doesn’t succeed, but it’s considerably to his credit that he doesn’t make a complete clown of himself trying.

Niimi gets off to a bad start with a convoluted essay apologising in advance for everything the book isn’t. This is not, he assures us, a biography of R.E.M., or an attempt to explain Murmur. Yet the subsequent two sections of the book are, essentially, a biog of R.E.M., or at least up until that primordial stage of their development, followed by a lengthy attempt to explain Murmur. Niimi even includes an appendix of his own best guesses at interpretations of the LP’s famously indistinct lyrics.

Despite largely writing the book he started by promising he wouldn’t, Niimi does quite well. The portrait of a young R.E.M., dedicated and ambitious and sharing rooms in a Charlotte flophouse, is endearing and empathetic. The song-by-song analysis, fleshed out by extensive interviews with producers Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, is full of fine anecdote, if possibly unnecessarily laden with detail about who used which amplifier when. Though Murmur never quite explains what Murmur is – as the author concedes, that’s all but impossible – the book goes a considerable distance towards explaining how this enduringly astonishing album happened.

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