Classic Album Reviews: R.E.M. — Murmur (1983)


It’s hard to describe how much a breath of fresh air Murmur was in 1983. Punk was a spent force and spandex clad hair bands were beginning their mighty popular rise -- a force that would go unabated  for over 10 years (thanks Nirvana!) As with most 20 year olds college kids at the time, I was discovering all the punk and post-punk I missed living as a teenager in suburban flyover land. However there wasn’t much that was new, that I could call my own. Then came Murmur.

To be honest, I don’t remember exactly where or when I first heard Murmur but I do remember being pretty much an early adopter of the band. It really was something that you never heard before. Finally a band that belonged to you and your friends and not to a bunch of jaded old punks, self-important baby boomers, or long-haired hippies. Critics talked about “jangly” guitars like the Byrds but I never heard that. It was dreamy, atmospheric with lyrics that were indecipherable and the lyrics you could hear didn’t make any sense. Here is the first verse of Radio Free Europe:

Beside yourself if radio's gonna stay.
Reason: it could polish up the grey.
Put that, put that, put that up your wall
That this isn't country at all

Don’t worry Michael Stipe doesn’t know what it means either.

Any band can do dreamy and atmospheric but what makes someone want to listen over and over again is that the songs have to be good, even if you can’t understand the lyrics, and Murmur is full of good songs. Radio Free Europe was the big hit of course even if Cities 97 has played it to death. Pilgrimage, Talk About the Passion, and Shaking Through have always been favorites. Catapult has a perfect bass guitar and drum opening that’s never been done before or since. Mike Mills was the most accomplished musician at the time the album was recorded (bring it you Pete Buck defenders!)  and you can tell as the bass work is exquisite. Michael Stipe’s voice really is a 4th instrument and the arcane lyrics add to the moodiness.

A great example of Stipe’s vocal work is in Talk about the Passion. During the end of the second verse there are strings accompanying Peter Buck’s guitar.  It repeats its refrain and then Stipe’s vocal humming comes in right with the strings and you literally cannot tell where the strings end and the vocals begin. Truly an amazing song. Peter Buck’s guitar on Shaking Through is simple yet adds a complexity to the song as it complements the vocals and a piano.

I’ve enjoyed this album for nearly 30 years and I cannot even think of not having it for another 30, it’s simply that good. The songs have many layers and can be uplifting when you need a jolt or quiet when you need some introspection time. You can focus on a specific musician or have the songs wash over you like a shower.  Regardless of what kind of music you like, this is one album that crosses genres and should be in everyone’s collection.


14 thoughts on “Classic Album Reviews: R.E.M. — Murmur (1983)”

  1. Finally a band that belonged to you and your friends and not to a bunch of jaded old punks, self-important baby boomers, or long-haired hippies.

    I snorted coffee through my nose. Is that an old diary entry, free?

    From the Chronic Town EP - a record this jaded, self important baby boomer was listening to before free and his mates hijacked my band.

      1. Sorry, pal. Sometimes I can't help myself. Although while I'm at it, didn't the big spandex metal movement happen later? I think what bands like REM and the Replacements et al provided an alternative to was the New Romantic nonsense that New Wave had spawned around that time--Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Thompson Twins, etc. Don't get me wrong, Murmur was a great record--my personal fave in their catalog, and a "classic" LP. I just found some of the content in your post half baked. Or over-heated. Take your pick.

    1. I vaguely remember that program, Livewire. Was that on Nickelodeon or something?

  2. aw, crap. today is the first thursday, isn't it. sorry to schedule the dad post today as well. my bad.

    1. And my thing about Cuddy's teammates, too: I might have stepped on twenty toes there.
      (Did anyone see that?)

  3. I'm not sure that any album released while I was in college can be considered "classic." Because that would imply that I am old or summat.

    So I'm pretty much drawing a line in the sand right after the Aug. 15, 1981 release of Pretenders II 🙂

    1. clas·sic (klsk)
      a. Belonging to the highest rank or class.
      b. Serving as the established model or standard: a classic example of colonial architecture.
      c. Having lasting significance or worth; enduring.

      I am definitely going with definition 1.a in these album reviews.

  4. R.E.M. wasn't my band, I knew "Stand" before I knew of the band (thanks, Chris Elliot!). When I was in middle school, I heard some classmates speak of older brothers "Oh, they're into R.E.M."

    I loved some of their stuff that came out during my teenage years: Out of Time, Monster. (Automatic? Not so much. [I have to be a contrarian, but "Country Feedback" is better than anything on the next album.]) I followed up and dug in the vaults for Green, Eponymous, and Document. Can't say I've played any of those for a decade. (Though I did pay attention to "Leaving New York" in the interim.)

    I had third-row tickets to see thier Monster Tour show at the Target Center. Stipe reached out his hand and grabbed my friend during his closing screaming on "End of the World."

    Sonic Youth was the opening band. All I had heard of Sonic Youth was Experimental Jet Set Trash and No Star, which is probably the worst album to start with for the band.* I didn't get SY: "Bull in the Heather" was great, but the album had "Winner's Blues" and "Tokyo Eye" and "Starfield Road" and well, that's a pretty scattered sound. After their opening set, SY played a full show at First Ave across the street. That was the last show SY has played in the Twin Cities for which I wasn't in attendance.

    *Whitey Album and NYC Ghosts & Flowers excepted

Comments are closed.