Desert Island Discs: “Murmur” by R.E.M. (1983)Posted: June 15, 2011
“We wanted to make a record that had no influences so that nobody could say, oh, they sound like this band or that band.” – Peter Buck
I swear I had an out-of-body experience the first time I listened to “Murmur.” And no, I was not on drugs.
The first time I heard R.E.M. I was standing at the checkout counter at Shinders on 8th and Hennepin in Minneapolis. Comic book geek, jonesing for my fix. Over the loudspeakers came “Talk About The Passion.” It was so ethereal, Michael Stipe’s voice so earnest, and the background vocals so orchestral that it instantly put me in mind of another band. “Who is this?” I asked the guy behind the counter. “The Moody Blues?”
“No,” he replied with a bit of hipper-than-thou snark. “That’s R.E.M.”
I was a bit chagrined, and years later felt vindicated when I read a quote from Peter Buck himself in Rolling Stone. He said that the best pop songs always put you in mind of other great pop songs you’ve heard. Take that, snarky hipster Shinders guy.
Days later I heard more of the album at a friend’s house. Stopped on the way home to buy the cassette. I was working the night-shift at the time, and didn’t get a chance to listen till I got home the next morning. It kicked off with those eerie pedal-tone notes along with something that sounded like distant thunder. Then, like someone kicking open a door, Bill Berry’s drums launched into one of the best rock singles of all time, “Radio Free Europe.” Sleep deprived, punchy, and rapturous, I listened as that song ended and led into “Pilgrimage.” And then, at around the first chorus of “Laughing” – “Lighted, lighted, laughing in tune” – I felt my awareness lift off out of my body and hover around the ceiling of my living room.
It was over by the time that “Talk About the Passion” started. And no, I was not on drugs. R.E.M. should put a sticker on the album cover, a Parental Guidance notification warning of the possibility of out-of-body experiences.
I was once chided on a music site for opining that “Murmur” was the most important album of the 80s. My ardor has cooled a wee bit since then, but I still would put it in the top three. Why? Because of what it launched. Over the years a handful of albums have been credited with launching a particular genre of music, or at least legitimizing it. “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” “Sweethearts of the Rodeo,” “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Tapestry,” “Kind of Blue,” “Red-Headed Stranger,” “In Utero,” “London Calling.”
Like those albums, R.E.M. pretty much invented alternative rock with “Murmur.” According to reviewer Evan Streb, R.E.M. sounded like absolutely nothing that was popular at the time and “Murmur” seemed to come from out of nowhere. Streb suggests that the reason the phrases “alternative” and “indie-rock” were invented was that by the early 80s, MTV and corporate rock had taken over and infiltrated mainstream music. Disco had become a tamed commodity, punk was circling the drain, synth rock sounded robotic, and “new wave” had long become indefinable. “Murmur” spurred an awareness of albums that were considered worthwhile “alternatives” to mainstream rock.
Much is made of how Stipe deliberately obscures (a/k/a “mumbles”) the lyrics. R.E.M. canon has it that he did that because he didn’t think he was a very good singer at the time. Early band promo material listed Stipe as playing the “Vocal Instrument.” Still, there was no lyrics sheet in the album, practically unheard of in the 80s. I called Oar Folkjokeopus on Lyndale, the store where I’d bought the cassette, and said that my copy was missing the lyrics sheet. The clerk gasped over the phone, “There’s a LYRICS SHEET?!”
This made “Murmur” a sort of alternative Rorschach, a projective test: what you perceived in the murkier lyrics and ambiguous designs was unique to you. Moreover, Matthew Perpetua in his excellent blog Popsongs writes:
“R.E.M. began their career with ‘Radio Free Europe,’ a song that seems to deliberately challenge the audience’s compulsion to sing along with upbeat rock anthems by rendering its words either incomprehensible or nonsensical… Intentionally or not, ‘Radio Free Europe’ forces the listener to question their identification with a set of lyrics that make very little literal sense, and possibly reevaluate how they respond to other songs that employ similar musical formulas to elicit an affirmative response. The song suggests an interesting rhetorical question: If we sing along to a pop song, are we on some level agreeing with and endorsing its lyrical content; and if so, can a good tune con us into lending our passive approval to potentially harmful concepts?”
So it’s not surprising that many parts of “Murmur” deal with conversation, and how murky and uncertain it can be. “Talk About the Passion” is the obvious one. Stipe sings “conversation fear” in “9-9,” and “speak out sometimes, but try to win,” in “Perfect Circle,” and “tell now, what is dreaming,” in “West of the Fields.” In “Catapult” he asks, “did we miss anything?”
The album title itself can be seen as a clever double entendre, setting forth the conversation theme while alluding to Stipe’s vocal style.
And none of this would mean anything if “Murmur” wasn’t musically outstanding. R.E.M. had been playing covers and originals at bars and college parties in and around Athens for years by then. Mike Mills’ stellar bass playing is rarely recognized (he was the only band member who’d been trained musically), and his background vocals are a perfect blend with Stipe. Berry is a phenomenal drummer, and added significant bits like the piano part in “Perfect Circle.” And Buck’s arpeggio-styled guitar playing formed the template for alternative rock for years to follow. These and Stipe’s “vocal instrument” blended together to form a cohesive, ethereal whole. Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, two geniuses from Charlotte, NC, saw to that. Songs fade in and out as if from a mist, one you could imagine hanging over the kudzu featured on the album cover.
(It’s pouring down rain here in east central Minnesota while I write and listen. “Murmur” to me is the ultimate rainy-day album. Though, amazingly, you can dance to it.)
It’s hard to pick a favorite song. The only one I occasionally fast-forward through is “9-9.” If forced to pick, though, I would nominate “Shaking Through” (“Could it be that one small voice doesn’t count in the room?”) and “Sitting Still” (“You can gather when I talk, talk until you’re blue”).
What once was the original “alternative” has morphed into the mainstream. That’s fine, that’s inevitable, I suppose. But so many other bands have since copied R.E.M. that it’s hard to remember a time when they were new and unique, when they didn’t sound like anyone else. I don’t know if I’d hear “Murmur” the same way if I heard it for the first time in 2011, but it rewards return listenings and I usually get something new out of it. If you’ve never heard it I envy you for what you have in store. Don’t listen while driving your car, though; an out-of-body experience may well lead to an auto body experience.