Album Analysis | R.E.M. - Murmur
We look back at R.E.M's most musically pure album, and why they're more than just "Losing My Religion".
When you hear of R.E.M., what thoughts first pop into your mind? Some old alternative band who had a few popular songs in the late ‘80s? A group that sold out in the early ‘90s? Perhaps that band who made Losing My Religion, your jam when you were 13 and first discovering the tenets of atheism? Or maybe for the more well-versed, that college rock band who made Radio Free Europe?
All four assumptions are correct; they were alternative rock giants from the ‘80s, they were never truly popular until they went in a pop-oriented direction, they do have some anti-religious and anti-political anthems as singles, and they did pioneer college rock with Radio Free Europe. However, today’s generation has a tainted perception of R.E.M., and likewise with acts like U2, Green Day, and Nirvana - their most popular material defines how people view them, rather than their back catalogue. And that’s an issue for a multitude of reasons, but the biggest problem is that it makes people ignore their most inspired and driven works when commercial ambitions weren’t primary concerns. While records like Reckoning (1984), Life's Rich Pageant (1986), and Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) are outstanding examples of the band in their prime, Murmur is where it all started.
Murmur is an oddly pure album. It isn't pure in terms of lyrics, themes, or spirituality, (if you can first decipher what Michael Stipe is singing, and then analyze what he’s singing about, you’ll probably recognize that it isn’t full of novelty songs for kids) it’s musically pure. Murmur features no flashy instrumental breaks, wonky time signatures, proficient production, or anything that could potentially hinder the songwriting. In fact, it’s a remarkably safe record for an alternative rock record in the early ‘80s; compared to the polyrhythms of Talking Heads, the theatrics of Kate Bush, and the noisy angst of Hüsker Dü, Murmur is quite simple. But that’s the best part of the album. Driven by a mix of jangly melodies, inspired by acts like The Byrds and Big Star, and sparse and concise post-punk rhythms, R.E.M.’s sound is unique, simple, and efficient.
The simplicity of the album and its pure songwriting allowed the band to act as a cohesive unit where each member plays a crucial role, but aside from that, it’s a bit hard to pin down the charm of this record. What exactly makes this feel so fresh and lively 36 years after its release? One answer is Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. The duo produced and engineered the album into something massive that yet sounds very humble and gentle. While still retaining the murkiness and darkness of their debut EP Chronic Town (1982), everything on Murmur sounds precise, highly detailed, and beautiful. No listener can absorb in Murmur in one listen - repeat listens are necessary to hear everything here. The running piano line on Perfect Circle, the tape sample that opens up Radio Free Europe, the odd percussion throughout Pilgrimage, the angular punch of 9-9, etc. This album is loaded with tons of details hidden beneath the array of instruments and Stipe’s vocals, and one listen doesn’t do it enough justice.
Throughout the album, the rhythm section drives everything forward, often without proper credit. Mike Mills' bass lines add a distinct groove and help reinforce the punching melodies of songs like West Of The Fields while Bill Berry’s drumming holds the rhythm, but can be a bit off-kilter at times. On guitar, Peter Buck dominates. None of his work is extremely technical and hero-worthy, like you might find with Rush or Led Zeppelin, but he’s responsible for some of the catchiest and most impressive melodies throughout the 12 tracks here. And then there’s Stipe, a man who gets a lot of shit and isn’t the easiest to comprehend. To reinforce the murkiness of the album (as the cover hints at), Stipe murmurs more than he sings, and he’s not the most technically gifted singer, but he showcases immense passion and vulnerability throughout the album. Whether it’s a more driven song like Radio Free Europe or a slower ballad like Perfect Circle, or even the jollier We Walk, Stipe defines the band’s music with his confusing lyrics and unique style of ‘singing’. Sure, he’s sounded clearer (see: Reckoning) and more powerful (see: Life's Rich Pageant) elsewhere, but complaints of him being “soulless” or “pretentious” on such a humble album are foolish. The band works as an efficient unit here, and they could only replicate their success on few other albums.
It’s easy for today’s youth to pass up on Murmur as an “outdated” example of a classic alternative, or just some boring jangle pop inferior to The Smiths (the two bands had little to do with each other), but there are good reasons behind the album’s massive acclaim that have nothing to do with its influence on alternative rock. And although it’s not their most accessible or emotional album, it’s easily their greatest. Simply, they could never fully replicate their sound here with the same results, and there are zero subpar songs here (as compared to Letter Never Sent from Reckoning, Everybody Hurts from Automatic For The People, or Underneath the Bunker from Life's Rich Pageant). They never exemplified the suburban despair with fresh and lively-sounding music here better than they did here, and they never sounded as natural and free. Lastly, it’s not the most important and influential debut album ever released, but it’s likely the best: no band utilized so much potential with as much precision and grace, and R.E.M. sounded confident and humble here. 36 years later, Murmur stood the test of time as a genuinely great alternative rock album.
Listen to R.E.M.’s Murmur on Spotify here.