R.E.M. – Murmur

MurmurIt’s very easy for me to take Murmur for granted – I didn’t hear it until well after I had become a fan of the band’s later work, and I didn’t start paying attention to the world of college/alternative/modern rock until almost a decade after this album helped establish its importance. The folky influence, the gentle layered harmonies, and the cryptic, emotive lyrics were such a natural part of my musical world by that time that this album didn’t come across as the shock to the system that it did in 1983, inspiring Rolling Stone to name it the album of the year. But while I can only appreciate its innovations secondhand, I can still enjoy the songs – and they’re still great 20 years later.

Both “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still,” the songs on the band’s first single, were re-recorded for this album. The former is a classic, but I admit that I first heard and came to love the original Hib-Tone mix that appeared on Eponymous. On the other hand, the latter song encapsulates R.E.M.’s early approach – drummer Bill Berry and bassist Mike Mills drive the song forward and provide the basic melody while guitarist Peter Buck’s arpeggios seem to surround the framework and carry it aloft. Berry and Mills’ backup vocal harmonies create an atmosphere from which Michael Stipe’s lead vocals barely emerge, making themselves felt more than heard. Do not, under any circumstances, ask me what Stipe means in any of these songs. I have no clue. But there’s a sense of vitality and reflection in his voice that’s no less meaningful for not making any literal statement.

rating: 4 out of 4 Murmur is generally a fast and energetic album, with songs like “Shaking Through,” “Catapult” and “Moral Kiosk” in the same spirit as “Sitting Still.” “Pilgrimage” has a pretty quick tempo if you listen to Berry’s drums, but the relative sparseness of the instruments on the verses makes it feel more sedate and provides a nice contrast with the verses. When the foursome does slow down, they prove that their knack for beautiful but melancholy songs was ever-present. The Berry-written “Perfect Circle” is built around his and Mills’ complementary piano work, but it’s the pair’s soaring background vocals combined with Stipe’s almost mournful lead that make the song overflow with emotion. “Talk About the Passion,” meanwhile, complements Buck’s guitar lines with some well-placed strings, one of the few embellishments on the album. It’s quite remarkable how much of a layered sound producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon were able to create with the band while still letting each musical voice be heard. But then, Murmur is quite a remarkable album.

After R.E.M. achieved international success with Warner Bros., IRS Records re-released the band’s early catalogue overseas with additional tracks, mostly live performances and remixes along with the occasional b-side. These additional tracks remain unavailable on U.S. versions of the album.

Order this CD

  1. Radio Free Europe (4:03)
  2. Pilgrimage (4:25)
  3. Laughing (3:52)
  4. Talk About the Passion (3:22)
  5. Moral Kiosk (3:32)
  6. Perfect Circle (3:23)
  7. Catapult (3:54)
  8. Sitting Still (3:07)
  9. 9-9 (3:02)
  10. Shaking Through (4:00)
  11. We Walk (3:04)
  12. West of the Fields (3:15)

(Track listing reflects original U.S. release; foreign re-releases contain additional tracks)

Released by: IRS Records/A&M
Release date: 1983
Total running time: 44:11