American Graffiti’s review of the debut album by indie-rock pioneers R.E.M.
By Carter Bagley
I thought an interesting thing I could do for this site is have a series where I go back and review the entire discography of artists I love. So then it just came down to deciding who I should pick first. Then it hit me when I was looking through my records and started listening the R.E.M.’s debut album “Murmur” for the umpteenth time. You obviously know by now they’re ultimately the group I landed on first. This is because they have such a diverse catalog that spanned three decades. I almost was going to review their debut EP “Chronic Town” first but then I realized I didn’t want to the review all of their live albums and compilation albums so I decided to cut it out. “Murmur” is their first album and the one that started their 5 year run for indie label IRS Records. It also might be one of their strongest efforts. It’s actually quite amazing how fantastic they were right from the start. Formed in 1980 in Athens, Georgia with vocalist Michael Stipe, lead guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry. They were always a mysterious group as their lyrics are extremely cryptic and peculiar and no one really knew much about what happened behind the scenes. Being one of the pioneer artists of the alternative movement it took most others an album or two before finding their footing. I mean even U2 had “Boy” and “October” before making “War” and The Replacements had “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out The Trash” before “Hootenanny” and “Let It Be”. R.E.M. on the other hand came out strong and ready to change music right from the beginning. “Murmur” opens with the song “Radio Free Europe” which immediately sets the bar for the rest of the album. It’s such a unique sound for the time and gets us ready for singer Michael Stipe’s famous vocals. It’s also what introduces us to R.E.M.’s known trait of writing lyrics that barely make sense albeit still impact you in a bizarre way. The album however does not take a dip after the near perfect opener, it continues strong with tracks 2 and 3 “Pilgrimage” and “Laughing”. Not quite as energetic and fun as “Radio Free Europe” but they make up for that with catchiness and well written lyrics. Though it’s track 4 “Talk About The Passion” that brings a real humanity to the album as it has fantastic lyrics and is softer than the others. It might even be one of the bands best, up there with “It’s The End of The World As I Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, “Losing My Religion”, and “Radio Free Europe”. The next two songs are definitely less recognized in the bands catalog which is really a shame because they continue the amazing quality of Side 1 of this album. “Moral Kiosk” is a unique tune but it has a real jangly catchiness to it with an explosively fun chorus. The real gem here though is track 6 “Perfect Circle” which is a very sweet and brilliantly written song and Michael Stipe delivers very beautiful held back vocals on this near perfect song. The album quickly returns to being endlessly fun with the next song “Catapult” which is nothing less than a hummable pop song that keeps “Murmur” at a good pace. “Sitting Still” is another pretty great song with chime-like guitar by Peter Buck and great bass by Mike Mills. Another song with almost meaningless lyrics but you can kind of get what he’s trying to say. It seems like Stipe was writing about not wanting to waste life or as he puts it “Sitting Still”. One of the more bizarre songs on the album is “9-9” which isn’t great by any means but it’s upbeat and performed well. Yet again I almost have no idea what he’s saying but I don’t think it really matters on this one as it does it’s job well. The next total album highlight is the underrated “Shaking Through” which is maybe one of my personal favorite tracks from the band in general. The lyrics in this one are much more purposeful to the song and the verses build up the insanely catchy and hard-hitting chorus and concludes with a powerful louder version of the chorus. If you listen to only a handful of songs off this album, make this one of them. “We Walk” is another very sparsely talked about R.E.M. song that I happen to love. It’s not as marketable as some of the other songs as the instrumentation is more calm and collected though still lovely nonetheless. Michael Stipe brings soft lovely vocals to this track adding to the sweet yet strange lyrics. The album concludes with the song “West Of The Fields” which is very well performed but doesn’t impact me like many of the others do. The verse are pretty great but the chorus doesn’t even come close to those in “Shaking Through” or “Perfect Circle”. R.E.M. is great at starting an album phenomenally and not ending the best. It’s still a good song though and I enjoy it quite a bit don’t get me wrong. “Murmur” is one of the strangest albums I’ve ever heard to be completely honest and it’s not perfect but it’s still one of my favorites. It was extremely ballsy to release this evocative and cryptic masterpiece for a debut album, but my god did it work. I can only assume what the band was thinking, but at such a young age they knew what they were doing. The drumming is punchy and present, both the bass and lead guitar are jangly and catchy and Michael Stipe has very unique and confident vocals. “Murmur” is truly an alternative classic and was revolutionary for the rise of the 80’s alt-rock scene.
Highlights: Radio Free Europe, Pilgrimage, Talk About The Passion, Moral Kiosk, Perfect Circle, Shaking Through, We Walk
Lowlights Lesser Highlights: Catapult, West of The Fields