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.