R.E.M. – Murmur (1983): Review

murmur

Produced by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon
Label – I.R.S.

Few landscaped record covers draw one’s attention like the mysterious image that adorns R.E.M’s debut long player, “Murmur”. The greyed out wasteland floor, invaded by the aggressive Kudzu weed as it squeezes the light, and eventually the life from all other vegetation around it feels like an invitation for the listener to be overwhelmed by a sense that the contents will infiltrate, then creep into the conscience, displacing the notion that new music in 1983 would never find an originality and vitality as strong as this. The pervading vines represent a feeling that once you’re sucked into the content within you’ll be wholly enveloped by it. Certainly “Murmur” didn’t remotely sound like anything that filled daytime radio schedules. Its startling mix of dreamy new wave, hazy 60s West coast pop, layered musicality, and vague lyrical musing was in stark contrast to the rock music from the era. Musically, it’s a genuine four pronged assault, with each individual adding something memorable to the collection. Bill Berry’s simple and disciplined rhythm’s carefully hold the songs together, enabling bass player Mike Mills the opportunity to apply melodies which more than often guide guitarist Peter Buck into his unique jangly fretwork. Michael Stipe’s cryptic mumblings are set back in the mix, like a subliminal message aimed straight at the subconscious. Producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon had the foresight to agree with the band’s request to record the LP like a live session and this brings a natural equilibrium in instrumental emphasis.

rem_83

For a debut collection, “Murmur” shows incredible maturity with a level of experimentation that’s wholly unexpected. That said, it’s still a cohesive piece of work, with a number of extraordinary highlights that show that the influences have been honed into a mix of engaging energy and subtle references to The Byrds, Gang Of Four and The Beat. Stipe manages glorious melodies on “Pilgrimage”, “Talk About The Passion” and “Perfect Circle”. There’s an arresting intensity in the outstanding “Radio Free Europe” that explodes from Berry’s thud, which directly transfers to Buck’s crunching chords and Mills’ sharp bass line. The momentum is maintained throughout, with very little drop in quality. “9-9” is deliberately jagged, and “West Of The Fields” is a fine summation of R.E.M.’s lasting capacity to provide classy closers (this would be the first of many). Although not an immediate sensation, the groundswell of critical adulation combined with the avid homespun following that grew with every live performance, would automatically lead the album to its inevitable international success.

“Murmur” shows all those early signs of greatness to come. There’s an aura of timelessness that categorizes any classic long player. The quality of songs, musicianship and production are significant, but it’s the utter diversity and originality of the material within that’s the revelation.

9/10

Track Rating
1 – Radio Free Europe (10)
2 – Pilgrimage (10)
3 – Laughing (9)
4 – Talk About The Passion (10)
5 – Moral Kiosk (8)
6 – Perfect Circle (10)
7 – Catapult (8)
8 – Sitting Still (9)
9 – 9-9 (8)
10 – Shaking Through (9)
11 – We Walk (8)
12 – West Of The Fields (9)

See also…

R.E.M. – Reckoning (1984): Review

R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now (2011): Review

Hackskeptic’s 500 Greatest Songs: R.E.M. – Man On The Moon

Hackskeptic’s 500 Greatest Songs: R.E.M. – Radio Free Europe

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