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.