Feb 9 2022

Album Review: R.E.M. – Murmur (#MWE)

R.E.M. is a band whose discography I’ve always wanted to tackle, and now that I’m writing more, it’s something I’ve resolved to complete this year. But now that I’ve officially started, I don’t know how they’re going to be able to top their debut. Murmur is marvelous, melodic, and moving – a historically important album that deserves all the accolades, then and now, for pushing forward a burgeoning new genre just outside of the zeitgeist.

The world’s first taste of R.E.M. was “Radio Free Europe,” what is regarded today as a classic in the world of so-called college rock and one of the touchstones of the sound that morphed into alternative rock and then indie rock. It’s a punchy, highly danceable track; the more midtempo, melodic “Pilgrimage” follows. By this point, two songs into the Athens band’s debut album, we are grabbing ahold of the formula that would make them so important to rock music. Peter Buck’s guitar jangles alongside Michael Stipe’s puzzling, mysterious lyrics, and these are a one-two punch of distinctiveness. But the backbone of Murmur is the soaring melodies provided by bass player Mike Mills, as well as the steady in-the-pocket rhythms of Bill Berry. Backup harmonies from Mills and Berry also give Stipe’s slightly-buried croon a major shine, which didn’t sound as confident as it would become over the next decade.

We hear Mills grab hold of the spotlight in “Laughing” with a strolling Rickenbacker bass line reminiscent of more goth-focused bands of the time like Bauhaus and New Order, before a plucking acoustic guitar takes us back into R.E.M.’s more pastoral territory. “Talk About the Passion” has such an introspective, wistful melody, it sounds like the band is wise beyond their years. Those paramount backup melodies show up again on the hook for “Moral Kiosk,” including some militaristic chanting in the pre-chorus. The band dives into a more contemplative mood on the simple, pretty, piano-based “Perfect Circle.” Later on, things get almost jovial with the skipping “We Walk,” followed by “West of the Fields,” a driving upbeat track that closes the album.

The unsung heroes here are producers Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, who reportedly let the band roam free over the tracks. Easter almost didn’t get to work with the band on Murmur; however, after botched sessions with Stephen Hague, who resorted to adding keyboard parts to songs without the band’s knowledge, a change was made. The listener will immediately notice a lack of synths, computer enhancements, or self-indulgent guitar solos. R.E.M.’s recording decisions, then considered stubborn, actually lift the album out of the decade it was made. This attitude prevailed throughout the band’s career and explains why their music has aged so impeccably.

What better place to start than at the beginning? I gotta say, I’m thrilled to dive deep into the rest of R.E.M’s output. Apparently the band only improved their sound over time, but it sounds like a complete statement on their debut Murmur, a pivotal record in the moody, introverted sound of alternative rock.

Score: 9/10