Once upon a time, a band would come along that obviously had its influences, but still sounded like nothing else. R.E.M. landed on mainstream FM radio with a tentative yet insistent single that also kicked off their first full-length album, beginning a love affair with its fans.
The album was Murmur, an apt title for a set of songs sung by a gruff vocalist more concerned with feel and emotion than being understood. The abstract lyrics of “Radio Free Europe” dance over a backing full of jangly Rickenbackers, melodic bass runs and steady drumming. “Pilgrimage” is a study in dynamics, adding some piano to an arrangement mostly following the bass. The bass also sets up “Laughing”, which meanders, apparently, around Laocoön and his two sons. “Talk About The Passion” opens with a catchy riff; the mumbled lyrics are even more impenetrable when they include fractured French. “Moral Kiosk” provides some edgy punk, but the big surprise is “Perfect Circle”. Beginning with twin pianos, this absolutely gorgeous melody is supported by gentle guitars and nicely muted drums. It even manages to end before the fade completes.
Side two gets off to a rocking start with “Catapult”, and continues with “Sitting Still”, giving bedroom guitarists a chance to play around with open E chords. “9-9” is a little cacophonous, but things get back to a high level on “Shaking Through”, which again features infectious guitar arpeggios, a strong piano and a great singalong chorus. After a short moody instrumental that sounds like an off-the-cuff jam, “We Walk” thunders in with a near-nursery rhyme, and “West Of The Fields” finishes things off with some urgent mystery.
Because of that mystery, it’s never easy to put R.E.M.’s abstract appeal into words. People get it or they don’t, and the band has experienced plenty of critical backlash. Yet for better or worse, they provided a different soundtrack for a generation not impressed with Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper and other video icons in bright pastels.
Murmur was not the band’s first release; that honor was shared by a self-produced 45 and a five-song EP that hip college kids already treasured; we’ll get to those soon enough. But for a debut, it remains a strong one. (The 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, approved by the band, includes a second disc of a Toronto concert from the tour following the album’s release. Nine of the album’s songs are mixed with a couple from the EP, and songs that would eventually appear on other albums.)
R.E.M. Murmur (1983)—4
2008 Deluxe Edition: same as 1983, plus 16 extra tracks