R.E.M. - Reflecting On The 40th Anniversary Of "Murmur" | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, December 3rd, 2023  

R.E.M. - Reflecting On The 40th Anniversary Of “Murmur”

The Album First Came Out On April 13, 1983

Apr 13, 2023 By Ian Rushbury Web Exclusive
Bookmark and Share

1982 was a turning point for R.E.M. That year, the Athens, Georgia-based four-piece teamed up with producer Mitch Easter to release an EP, Chronic Town, which showcased a dramatic improvement in the band’s burgeoning skills. But this would just be a taste of what was to come the following year. In 1983, R.E.M. delivered something truly magical with their proper full-length debut, Murmur.

Recording for Murmur started on January 6, 1983. The band was again joined by Easter and his fellow producer Don Dixon – drafted in to add a sheen of professionalism to the process. Sensibly, they let the band call the shots, acting as talented technicians, sounding posts, and cheerleaders. The album took just 17 days to complete. In stark contrast to the reverb-smothered, drum machine-driven sound of the early ‘80s, Murmur is raw and vital. Adornments are few, but perfectly chosen. From the tack piano on the beautiful “Perfect Circle” to the mournful cello on “Talk About the Passion,” any piece of instrumentation above and beyond the band’s low-key, but powerful live sound was placed with a jeweler’s eye for detail. What worked massively in the band’s favor was the fact that of the four musicians in R.E.M., two (vocalist Michael Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck) used instinct as their compass. Neither was a schooled performer but both had a natural gift and a “try anything” approach which, when teamed with drummer Bill Berry and bassist Mike Mills’ trained and theoretical approach, created some inspired music.

In their early days, R.E.M.‘s members were prolific writers and the 12 songs which appeared on Murmur were picked from an impressively large canon. Leaving aside their vast repertoire of bar band cover versions and numerous “Nuggets”-inspired, garage band ditties, R.E.M. had many songs to choose from. They chose wisely and well.

The album opens with a re-recording of their debut single. Originally released on the independent Hibtone label in July 1981, “Radio Free Europe” is to alternative music as “Sweet Home Alabama” is to classic rock. The 1983 version is cleaner and clearer than the indie 45, and although the 1981 version is held up as the definitive early R.E.M. artifact, the version on Murmur hits harder. The pace is less frantic and Stipe’s enigmatic, elliptical lyrics are slightly more decipherable. But only slightly.

The 12 songs on Murmur lead the listener in a myriad of directions and diversions. “Pilgrimage” and “Catapult” are bass guitar-led, new wave pop, while “Talk About the Passion” and “Perfect Circle” are aching ballads that owe more to George Jones than whatever was in the charts in 1983. A key factor in what set the band apart from their contemporaries was Stipe’s lyrics. To this day, they remain the subject of scrutiny with numerous variations held up by internet “experts” as true and accurate. He has yet to offer up the definitive libretto. Where’s the fun in that? “Pilgrimage” has some great examples of Stipe’s lyrical sleight of hand: “Your hate clipped and distant/ Your luck, a two-headed cow.” If you thought Bob Dylan was obtuse, Michael Stipe was more. Whatever elegant gibberish Stipe may have sung, it fit the instrumentation perfectly, like Gene Clark attempting the Cocteau Twins’ back catalog.

To add to the mystique, the cover of the album is simply a photograph of a local railroad trestle overgrown with kudzu – a noxious weed that kills other greenery by completely smothering it. The back cover features four blue-tinged portraits of the band members. Buck gazes wistfully to his right, Berry and Mills strike their best edgy post-punk poses, while Stipe looks like the art student he probably aspired to be. There is no indication of what the music on the record would sound like. You could safely say that it wouldn’t sound like Motley Crue or Kraftwerk, but other than that, all bets were off.

The post-Murmur R.E.M. story is well documented. A combination of relentless touring and a consistently excellent series of albums meant that they were finally rewarded with the hit album they deserved. Their seventh album Out of Time, released in 1991 saw the band leap from playing theatres to stadiums, propelled by hit singles and massive album sales. One wonders what their newer fans made of Murmur as they traced the history of the band to its origins. There is none of Out of Time’s sheen on the 1983 record. No glamour. No show business. Just 12 songs, quickly and efficiently recorded with care and invention. Just 12 songs that whispered of change to come in the world of music.



Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published


Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

There are no comments for this entry yet.