[Review] R.E.M.: Murmur (1983)

The band’s debut provided a high-water mark in the alternative rock movement and remains the best thing they’ve ever done.

Kronomyth 1.0: Sweetheart of the radio.

The first time you heard “Radio Free Europe,” you became part of something young and hip and fresh called alternative rock. You didn’t know what to call it, of course, because “alternative rock” hadn’t been invented yet. But you knew it was something illicit, loosed like pirate radio over the airwaves to wreak havoc and change the established order of things. On Murmur, the band’s first long-play record, R.E.M. took the hybrid music of The Byrds (most noticeable in Peter Buck’s arpeggiated Rickenbacker) and added punk and angst to create a completely new hybrid. At the center of it all was Michael Stipe, spokesmen for the unheard and misunderstood, whose incoherence articulated the frustration and isolation of a generation. Behind them, Mike Mills provided the punch and elasticity with his outstanding bass playing and backing vocals while Bill Berry could kick up a storm (“West of the Fields”) or lay it down like gentle rain on a ballad (“Perfect Circle”).

Murmur for many (myself included) remains the band’s best album, perhaps because it was the beneficiary of much practice. Most of the material recorded for Murmur had already been a part of the band’s setlist for a year or two. Songs like “Moral Kiosk,” “Sitting Still” and “Laughing” feel lived in, while “Radio Free Europe” was already in its second incarnation at this stage. The Deluxe Edition of Murmur (and gripe all you want about the price, it’s still worth it) includes a July 1983 show that features most of Murmur and pretty much nails it track by track. One of the few “new” tracks on Murmur, “Talk About The Passion,” feels almost brittle compared to the rest of the album (although it’s still a great song) and you can’t help but wonder if a year of maturation wouldn’t have loosened some of its rigidity.

The punk influence (check out the Gang of Four-styled “9-9”) and humor (“We Walk,” “Shaking Through”) would fade with time, replaced by a more studied songcraft as R.E.M. shifted from countercurrent to mainstream rock artists. Murmur is both too inexperienced to be self-conscious and too young not to be. It cannot be reproduced, this murmur against the steel and glass of the status quo, it can only be replayed.

Original elpee version

A1. Radio Free Europe (4:03)
A2. Pilgrimage (4:25)
A3. Laughing (3:52)
A4. Talk About The Passion (3:22)
A5. Moral Kiosk (3:32)
A6. Perfect Circle (3:23)
B1. Catapult (3:54)
B2. Sitting Still (3:07)
B3. 9-9 (3:02)
B4. Shaking Through (4:00)
B5. We Walk (3:04)
B6. West of the Fields (Bill Berry/Peter Buck/Mike Mills/Michael Stipe/Neil Bogan) (3:15)

CD reissue bonus tracks (Japan)
13. There She Goes Again (Lou Reed)
14. 9-9 (live)
15. Gardening At Night (live)
16. Catapult (live)

2CD reissue bonus disc (Live at Larry’s Hideaway – Toronto, Canada, July 9, 1983)
B1. Laughing
B2. Pilgrimage
B3. There She Goes Again (Lou Reed)
B4. 7 Chinese Bros.
B5. Talk About The Passion
B6. Sitting Still
B7. Harborcoat
B8. Catapult
B9. Gardening At Night
B10. 9-9
B11. Just A Touch
B12. West of the Fields (Bill Berry/Peter Buck/Mike Mills/Michael Stipe/Neil Bogan)
B13. Radio Free Europe
B14. We Walk
B15. 1,000,000
B16. Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)

All songs written by Bill Berry/Peter Buck/Mike Mills/Michael Stipe unless noted.

The Players

Bill Berry (drums, backing vocals, percussion, bass guitar, piano), Peter Buck (electric & acoustic guitars), Mike Mills (bass guitar, backing vocals, piano, organ, acoustic guitar, vibraphone), Michael Stipe (lead vocals) with Don Dixon (bass guitar on A6), Mitch Easter (backwards guitar on A6). Produced & engineered by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon.

The Pictures

Cover collaboration by Ann Kinney, Carl Grasso, Sandra Lee Phipps. Photographs by Sandra Lee Phipps.

The Plastic

Released on elpee and cassette on April 12, 1983 in the US (IRS, SP/CS-70604), Australia (IRS, ELPS-4380), Japan (CBS, 25AP-2659) and the Netherlands (IRS, ILP 465378-1). Reached #36 on the US charts (RIAA-certified gold record).

  1. Re-issued on elpee, cassette and compact disc in the US (IRS, SP/CS/CD-70014).
  2. Re-issued on compact disc in 1991 in Japan (CBS, CSCS-6080).
  3. Re-released on expanded compact disc in 1992 in Japan (EMI Toshiba, TOCP-7266) and the Netherlands (IRS, 13158-2) with 4 bonus tracks.
  4. Re-issued on compact disc and cassette in 1994 in the UK (IRS, CDMID/CMID-129).
  5. Re-released on remastered 200g vinyl elpee in 1995 in the US (Mobile Fidelity, MFSL-1-231) with gatefold cover.
  6. Re-released on remastered compact disc in 1996 in the US (Mobile Fidelity, UDCD-642).
  7. Re-issued on expanded compact disc in 2005 in Japan (EMI/IRS, TOCP-53571) with 4 bonus tracks.
  8. Re-released on remastered 2CD Deluxe Edition on November 24, 2008 in the US (IRS, B0012251-02) and the UK (IRS, 1788288) with bonus disc.
  9. Re-released on remastered 180g vinyl elpee in 2009 in the UK (Universal, 2707005).

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