by Jack Fraser USER (27 Reviews)
April 20th, 2019 | 5 replies

Release Date: 1983 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Murmur's combination of immediacy and mystery may have entrenched it as a classic, but it doesn't quite transcend the sum of its parts.

Murmur might just be the poppiest indie album that a lot of people just don’t get - not in that it’s obscure or challenging but it’s difficult to immediately grasp why a collection of 12 jangly rock songs with mostly indecipherable lyrics is held up as a classic. There certainly does seem to be a disconnect between the reputation accorded to the record and how it sounds in 2019. The forty-four minutes are consistent, well-written, tightly-performed, and surprisingly varied; nonetheless, few of these songs reach that transcendent point that the band would later attain. However, the lyrical uncertainty of these tracks and their surface-level catchiness is probably ironically responsible for the deep emotional attachment thousands of people have for this record - no record in the genre combines immediacy and mystery so effectively.

The song-writing on Murmur is extremely impressive, especially considering the age and party-band roots of the group. There isn’t a second of filler, and like the best debut records these songs are packed with musical ideas and internal variety. The opener "Radio Free Europe” is an airtight classic, a perfect indie rock song driven by Mike Mills’ melodic bassline and a pre-chorus that would be one of the best choruses of their career if it weren’t blown out of the water seconds later by the actual refrain. “Sitting Still” is much lighter, with Michael Stipe’s phonics-first verse melodies playing off Peter Buck’s chiming picking before giving way to strummed chords and a cathartic “I can hear you.” Unfortunately, many of these songs have quite forgettable verses that eventually give way to truly special choruses; “Pilgrimage” for instance meanders until a big chorus rains down arpeggios and heavenly backing vocals, and “Moral Kiosk” follows a standard template before exploding into a jaw-dropping pounding chorus of complex harmonies and floor tom. Others, like “Catapult,” start strongly but feature choruses that likely sounded better at house parties than in the studio. Finally, the truly beautiful intro to “9-9” is sadly let down by a competent but typical mid-tempo rock song. Despite these flaws, each of these songs contains at least something really special, and the best do reach the front-to-back transcendence ascribed to the record.

R.E.M.’s debut is an excellent collection of tracks that exhibits the strengths of a band with a natural chemistry and talent – a creative and ambitious rhythm section, a young guitarist immediately establishing a unique voice, and singer whose ear for melody is as clear as his lyrics are obscure. While the result may seem to lack the depth and emotional resonance of some of their later output, Murmur’s combination of catchy songwriting and thematic obscurity makes it feel both immediately appealing and somehow special, allowing those who found it in their formative years to add those aspects exogenously.

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user ratings (861)
other reviews of this album
Mikesn EMERITUS (4)

jtswope (4.5)
R.E.M. make a name for themselves with an outstanding debut album that is both compelling and vigoro...

Flashmobba (4.5)
The legendary band's tour de force; Murmur is one of alternative rock's earliest and finest records....

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Comments:Add a Comment 
April 20th 2019


Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

Got some time before I head abroad to work for the summer so I thought I might do some R.E.M. reviews the next couple days.

Was inspired to write this by the podcast (of course) but specifically the way that a lot of listeners were perplexed at Scott and Scott's adulation for this record - I remember my mum raving about this album to me all the time when I was younger and I shared that attitude of "yeah, I mean, these songs are pretty good I guess."

This record and the way people react to it kind of remind of "Is This It" by The Strokes; they're both hailed as classics but plenty of people hear them as "just a bunch of pop songs." I think both of them are really easy to project strong memories and emotions on that give them that transcendent resonance they lack in a vacuum.

April 20th 2019


Album Rating: 4.5

This was a great band and this is a great album, one of my favourites from them, really. It was an amazing debut were the band shows their more pure image. Perhaps they may never have done it as well as here. Good review. Pos.

April 20th 2019


Album Rating: 4.0

Great review. Definitely agree with your main argument, Murmur's a nice album but has never struck me as much as some of their other 80s albums.

April 21st 2019


Album Rating: 5.0

Deff my fave R.E.M.

Digging: Goldfrapp - Seventh Tree

April 21st 2019


Album Rating: 4.5


godly album

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