R.E.M. – Murmur

Murmur (1983)


1. Radio Free Europe 2. Pilgrimage 3. Laughing 4. Talk About The Passion 5. Moral Kiosk 6. Perfect Circle 7. Catapult 8. Sitting Still 9. 9-9 10. Shaking Through 11. We Walk 12. West Of The Fields


Murmur is a rare beast – a record that, nearly 30 years later, not only remains one of the most influential debut LPs of all time, but, unlike other Very Important First Albums by the Velvet Underground, Led Zeppelin, the Ramones, etc, was actually critically recognized, if not fellated, at the time of its release as a significant achievement. Rolling Stone actually ranked it as the best album of 1983 back then, ahead of Thriller and U2’s War. That doesn’t impress me very much, of course, but apparently being better than Michael Jackson and Bono was considered a big deal in 1983, when Reagan was in the White House and syndrums and neon tights ruled the world. What a shitty time to live that must have been.

But here’s the not-so-big secret: Murmur is only revolutionary in its insular, weirdo approach and lack of gross 80’s production mores rather than in its content. Because the songs are mostly just catchy 60’s-influenced folk rock. But even if playing Byrdsy guitar riffs doesn’t exactly amount to reinventing the wheel, it undoubtedly constituted refreshing revivalism in the early 80’s after cock rock, prog bloat and synth pop shit had dominated and diluted rock music for so many years. And that’s a plenty big deal. But sure, the Remmers have got a new spin on it. Murmur basically continues the dark, murky folk rock sound of Chronic Town, like they’re channeling the Doug Yule-era Velvet Underground after they’d locked them in a dark room and replaced the heroin with tea leaves, but with denser arrangements and better songs. It sounds intriguingly odd, even alien. But mostly they achieve this sonic step forward simply by adding a few more—largely acoustic—guitar overdubs, plus a bit of piano (and a few other sparely used things here and there… is that a cello I hear on “Talk About The Passion”? I just noticed that), and voila! Mumble is born.

Aw… really, I don’t mean to keep picking on Michael, because without his gun-shy delivery “Radio Free Europe” and various others here just wouldn’t be the same. Don’t think he’s hiding some secret revelation beneath his mumbled obtuseness, of course (if there was ever any speculation that he was a dormant lyrical genius, I presume “Everybody Hurts” shattered it forever). Stipe’s lyrics at this stage are nothing if not complete nonsense. But even if lines like “Deal the porch is leading us absurd” or “Your luck, a two-headed cow” make no sense whatsoever thematically, logically, or grammatically, melodically—in how they fit in cadence with the instrumental backing—they are almost always the right words in a delicious bowl of REM stew. And even if reading the lyrics to “Radio Free Europe” on a page (something the band, for good reason, actively discouraged by not including lyrics in their album packaging until their major label days) is the most incomprehensible exercise in pop music since whatever drunken blubbering was coming out of Jim Morrison’s mouth the night he whipped his dick out onstage, in context, it doesn’t matter. Get too narcissistically caught up in the words or the singing and it can get in the way of a melody sometimes. No chance of that here. “Radio Free Europe” is immaculately conceived in that way, perfect just the way it is, and even though it’s the first song they ever did for my money it’s also arguably the best. That deep echo effect on the “calling out in transit” chorus makes my hair stand on end every time. Makes it sound like they really were “calling out” from somewhere uncharted, somewhere they might let us get a peek at if we were willing to follow them behind this mysterious new shroud called “alternative.” Many people, including Peter Buck, prefer the version they recorded in 1981 for their debut 45 on Hib-Tone, but to me that one sounds like the work of enthusiastic amateurs. The Murmur version sounds like the work of pop geniuses.

But just because it’s all downhill from the first 4 minutes doesn’t discourage me none. Right after that we’ve got “Pilgrimage,” which is slower (get used to it) but establishes the comfortable jangle riff-subdued verse-cumshot chorus REM song formula prototype, and does it just about as good or better than any one of its follow ups thanks to a few extra flourishes – some subtle tribal percussion, neato layered backup vocals. “Perfect Circle,” then, is their first ballad – minor key piano verses (double tracked piano! Man, when you don’t expect a band to use overdubs, just a minor trick like that makes it sound that much cooler), gentle yet melodramatic chorus resolution… yup, sounds about right. This is another place where the meaningless lyrics help, as they ensure the pretension of later REM ballads is absent. Though the strong melody helps too. Afterwards the proceedings are ramped up again (from “super chilled out dude” to “mid-tempo”) with “Catapult,” which evokes the Ramones if they’d been castrated but maintained all their catchiness, and “Sitting Still,” which, if the prototype for future mid-tempo REM songs is “Pilgrimage,” forms the familiar mold for their faster rockers. The “IIIIIIIIIIIIIIII can hear you” chorus sounds like pathos for Stipe, especially since the rest of the record is “I can’t the fuck understand you.”

But there’s no denying that the album takes a severe nosedive for its final quarter. Some might say it starts with the oddball “9-9,” but even though its bass, guitar and drum parts sounds like they were randomly collaged from three completely different songs, it somehow works and I like it. But it might be best to turn this thing off after that song ends because following are “Shaking Through,” which sounds like an especially corny outtake from Grease dressed up as a standard issue REM folk rocker, and “We Walk,” which doesn’t even bother hiding its cutesy soft-shoe tendencies – blech. They return to their formula on the closing “West Of The Fields,” but it sounds very MOR compared to the other material on the album. The deflating balloon ending means a half letter grade docking from me, but that doesn’t make the rest any less important – or enjoyable.

One Comment

  1. Ben wrote:

    Even as an R.E.M. fan, I don’t really find anything special about this album. As you pointed out, the songs are “just catchy 60’s-influenced folk rock”. Normally I don’t have any issues with that, but all these songs sound exactly the fucking same. “Radio Free Europe” is a great song, “West of the Fields” and “9-9” are pretty good too, but that’s it. I’ve heard this album upwards of 20 times and I still can’t remember how half of them go. I was really hoping to find something as awesome as “1,000,000” from “Chronic Town”. But aside from RFE it didn’t happen.