Friday Flashback: Murmur by R.E.M.

Yesterday–April 12, 2018–was the 35th anniversary of the release of R.E.M.’s debut LP. I wrote a review of it for Amazon.com on December 11, 2005. Here it is. [As with all of my Friday Flashbacks, it has been edited for spelling, grammar, punctuation, factual accuracy etc., but the content is unchanged.]

Murmur is arguably the most important American record of the 1980s. It is seen by many as the birth of alternative rock. I can’t quite agree with this assessment, but R.E.M.’s debut was literally music to the ears of music fans who couldn’t quite relate to post-punk, new wave, and the MTV pop of the early 80s. Seemingly out of nowhere came a record with a rustic, acoustic feel, at a time when electric guitars were wiry and robotic, and synthesizers were on the verge of becoming a lead instrument. One might say that Murmur was to the early 80s was The Band’s first LP was to the late 60s. And the fact that Murmur reached #36 on the Billboard Top 200 is a testament to the size of the market that R.E.M. was able to tap (not that that was their intention).

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Photo by Chris Walter

At the risk of making a potentially politically incorrect statement–a concern that I am sensitive to–I would say that R.E.M. were the founders of alternative rock in the same way that Columbus was the one who discovered America. While Murmur certainly sounded different than anything released in well over a decade, I still cannot help but give The Feelies’ debut Crazy Rhythms [click for my Amazon.com review] the distinction of being the first alternative record. To me, Crazy Rhythms sounds different enough than what came before it, but enough like what came after it to merit this distinction. In other words, alternative rock was already there, but not many people knew about it. This is where R.E.M. comes in. As I said before, although Murmur had no apparent target audience and practically no commercial viability, it still reached the Top 40. Hence, the importance of Murmur–like that of Christopher Columbus–is immeasurable.

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Murmur is a fascinating listen. It sounds like something unearthed from a spot where such a thing has no earthly business being. R.E.M. was influenced by artists from across the punk (The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Television) and pop (The Byrds, Big Star, The Soft Boys) spectrums, but managed to avoid sounding too much like any of them. This is a case of so many influences perfecting the sound. Like the best albums by the bands they loved, Murmur marks a point when music starts to sound different. Perhaps the most obvious case of this is that after this album, lyrics could be not only be cryptic, but the vocals themselves unintelligible. The songs on Murmur–like the songs on Crazy Rhythms–do not seem to be about anything. “Perfect Circle,” for example, is a fine case of how R.E.M.’s lyrics are more significant in terms of how they are said rather than what the actual words are (e.g., “Standing too soon/Shoulders high in the room”). And while R.E.M. was a minimalist band at heart, producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon [click for the 2017 interview that I did with him and Marti Jones] succeeded in adorning the songs without swallowing them whole, such as in the waltz-like feel of “We Walk.”

The disparate styles and sounds that merge to create the mural that Murmur is reflects the disparate backgrounds of the the band’s members. Stipe was born in Decatur, GA, but formed his first band while in high school in St. Louis. Meanwhile, Peter Buck was born in northern California, Mike Mills in southern California, and Bill Berry in Deluth, Minnesota. Yet somehow, they were all able to come together at a party in Athens, GA, and henceforth be forever shrouded in the mythology of the American South. And of course, the irony is never lost on critics that the band’s name refers to the state of sleep in which dreaming occurs, and thus their music and lyrics would forever be compared to the opaque, symbolic, non-linear images of dreamland.

Musically, Murmur delivers on the promise of the Chronic Town EP, with many of their trademarks firmly in place on the first single, “Radio Free Europe.” Michael Stipe’s voice isn’t quite a drawl, but it has a nasally twang about it that gives it its edge. The arpeggios are invincibly crisp on “Talk About the Passion,” and equally slinky on the rocking “Catapult” and “Sitting Still.” On “9-9,” the guitar richochets in between verses of Velvet Underground-like narration. And the rhythm section is nothing to sneeze at, either. Witness the thumping bass lines on “Laughing,” and the footstomping beats of “Pilgrimage” and “Moral Kiosk.” Then there is “Shaking Through,” which is just beautiful, and “West of the Fields,” a forceful closer to an almost flawless record.

R.E.M.’s debut LP was enough to convince skeptics and believers alike that there was probably nothing that the band couldn’t do. Within five years, Rolling Stone would deem them “America’s Best Rock ‘n Roll Band,” and few who were in the know would dispute the claim. Five years after that, R.E.M. would be America’s biggest rock ‘n roll band. Whether this was poetic justice or a travesty depends on your point of view. Either way, the band would always have its first half-dozen or so records to justify their worshipping audience and critical raves. With Murmur, they hit the ground running, and have kept moving, albeit a bit more slowly, for over 20 years since.