A favorite album is something very personal; something you have a connection to that you don’t have with anything else. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself bobbing and weaving through different musical moods – one week you could find yourself in a 60’s psychedelic rock mood. Another you could be in a 90’s hip-hop mood, and after that you could find yourself listening to classic country. But a favorite album is something you can always return to – something to serve as an intermission between your varying musical preferences. And, for me, that album is Murmur by R.E.M.
Most people are aware of R.E.M. in some form or fashion. Everyone knows their hits: songs like “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts,” “Shiny Happy People,” “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” these are songs that have become part of everyday pop culture. But they were a very different band when they first started out, and their early material is radically different from their later tunes.
Now I’m not gonna sit here and say that one era is better than the other, and that if you don’t like the era I like, you’re an idiot. Because the truth is that I happen to like both early and later R.E.M. – a lot. In fact, they may be my favorite musical group altogether – although that’s hard to quantify. But it’s important to note that, initially, they didn’t possess the sound that’s commonly associated with them nowadays. What sound did they have? I’ll tackle that in a minute.
Murmur was released in 1983 on IRS Records, and it was R.E.M.’s debut record that soon garnered praise from all kinds of musical publications. Rolling Stone, in fact, called it the best album of 1983, beating out artists like Michael Jackson (who released Thriller), U2 (War), and The Police (Synchronicity). Ok, so we all know that reviews like this don’t necessarily mean much, but I’m just using them to show that this album turned a bunch of heads when it came out, and it got R.E.M. started in a very nice fashion, along with their debut EP Chronic Town, which came out the year before.
I had personally never heard of this album until I really started to listen to the band regularly. I had R.E.M.’s greatest hits – but it was a Warner Brothers compilation, so it only included tracks from the albums they released after they changed labels in 1988. So, early songs from R.E.M. were a mystery. I listened to that compilation quite a bit and decided to listen to more of their catalogue – starting with their debut. Oh how my mind was blown.
For this review, I’ve decided to go track by track because each song is worth noting. I mean, if it’s a favorite album you gotta mention each tune, right? So, let’s start with the first track, “Radio Free Europe.”
#1- Radio Free Europe: The album starts with mysterious, low percussion, sounding as if coming from a distance – before bursting into that catchy bass line and snappy drum work. Peter Buck’s guitar jangles beautifully, and Michael Stipe’s vocals convey so much emotion, even if you can’t understand a lick of what he’s saying. “Radio Free Europe” was R.E.M.’s debut single, originally released in 1981, but the band decided to re-record the tune for their debut album. And I gotta say, I prefer the re-recorded version. This song is a microcosm of the jangle pop-tinged-with-folk style that they will invent/perfect with this album. The interplay between the rhythm section and Buck’s jangly riffs is blissful, and this has got to be one of my all time favorite R.E.M. tracks.
#2- Pilgrimage: After the up-tempo “Radio Free Europe,” they decided to slow it down for this next track – starting with Stipe’s obscured vocals, which, again, sound as if coming from a distance. Then that ominous piano riff starts, which drives the song. Excellent vocals from Michael Stipe are made all the better by Bill Berry’s impeccable drumming on this tune. Also, the vocal harmony between Stipe and bassist Mike Mills is one of the most memorable out of R.E.M.’s entire catalogue.
#3- Laughing: Track 3 starts off with a tight bass groove from Mike Mills, and this may be my favorite song from the entire record. Stipe’s passionate vocal delivery, the subtle piano queues, the lovely acoustic guitar, the mythological-inspired lyrics, the chorus’s vocal harmony. Man, I love this song. Michael Stipe has to have one of the most unique voices in rock history, and “Laughing” is one of his brightest moments, in my opinion. I implore you: if you just want a sampler of this album, I recommend you listen to this song. You won’t regret it.
#4- Talk About The Passion: Peter Buck builds this next song upon his catchy guitar riff, and the lyrics draw parallels between the suffering of Jesus in the biblical Passion and the suffering endured by those afflicted by starvation. This song also kickstarted R.E.M.’s longstanding inundation with string sections. One of the more powerful songs on the album, “Talk About the Passion” is definitely one of R.E.M.’s best.
#5- Moral Kiosk: This song has very post-punk inspired instrumentals, led by a guitar riff that I can only describe as “snappy” and Mike Mills’s pronounced bass. The lyrics also continue the mythological motif, as well as dismissing superficial notions of beauty. At least that’s what I believe them to mean. This is a good time to bring up a key component of this album: the lyrics. Apart from the song, they make hardly a lick of sense. Combined with the music however, the resulting duality is something completely customizable – what a song may mean to me doesn’t necessarily have to mean the same thing to you. That’s one thing I love about this album: you create your own stories to describe the song. “Moral Kiosk” is for sure one of the catchier songs on the album, and it’s definitely one of my favorites.
#6- Perfect Circle: Concluding the first half of the album, “Perfect Circle” is Chase’s favorite tune from Murmur. It’s certainly one of the most powerful due to Mike Mills’s honky tonk piano riff and Stipe’s vocal range – which runs the gamut from some of his lowest notes to jaw-dropping dynamicity in the chorus. After drummer Bill Berry left the band, R.E.M. would dedicate this song to him because he was the main composer behind this country-tinged ballad.
#7- Catapult: Once again, the jangle pop instrumentals are simply gorgeous in this song, and I love, once again, the vocal delivery. The lyrics evoke a feeling of nostalgia, and, whether or not this was R.E.M.’s intent, I’m not sure, but Chase and I both agree that this is a perfect example of a feel good song. So much so, in fact, that Chase declared it made him want to play baseball one time after we listened to it. I think that anecdote is quite fitting for “Catapult.”
#8- Sitting Still: The guitar in this song is simply sublime, absolutely perfect. I recall that a few years ago, when I started to dive into R.E.M.’s entire catalogue, I was watching a live performance of them from 1985 (see below). When they began to play “Sitting Still,” I was enamored. That guitar riff is one of the best I’ve ever heard, and may be the best from this album. The studio version is just as, if not more, magical, due to Michael Stipe’s hair raising notes he hits just before the 2 minute mark.
#9- 9-9: Similar to “Moral Kiosk,” “9-9” evokes strong post-punk vibes from me. Wire is one band that comes to mind. This song has a really cool bassline from Mike Mills, and the song’s bemoaning of “conversation fear” I can’t help but feel applies today.
#10- Shaking Through: This is a strong contender with “Laughing” for my favorite song on the entire album. The piano, Stipe’s vocals, the lovely chorus, Buck’s beautiful guitar work, it’s all enrapturing. But my favorite part of this song? The lyrics. To me, they’re about overcoming apathy and indifference, and maintaining hope in the face of perceived insignificance. Is that actually what the song’s about? Probably not, but that’s how I interpreted them. This song gives me a strong case of the feels, and it is another song I recommend you check out if you just wanna get your feet wet with Murmur.
#11- We Walk: Similar to a sea shanty, this song trudges along at a nice pace that sets it apart from everything else on the album. The lyrics refer to the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, who was infamously killed whilst taking a bath. That’s a pretty bad way to go, to be honest. Anyway, this song is incredibly catchy, and the constant tempo is contrasted with some loud crashes of thunder near the end – something I didn’t expect upon first listen that I now look forward to each additional listen. The thunder also reinforces the sea shanty vibes.
#12- West of the Fields: The album’s finale continues the themes of mystery and mythology, as well as the jangly instrumentals, muffled vocals, and interpret-em-your-own-way lyrics. This tune is a solid final track because it combines all the main components of the album.
I just really love this album, man. Every second of it. The jangly instrumentals, the usage of the piano, Mike Mills’s bass, Peter Buck’s guitars, Bill Berry’s drumming (some of the tightest I’ve ever heard), and Michael Stipe’s voice. The themes of mystery and mythology, the excellent production, I could listen to this album every day and never tire of it. And I sincerely hope you check it out yourself if you never have before. No rating would do it justice: it’s untouchable, in my book.
Thank you all so much for reading. Make sure you check out the other articles here on the site, as well as our Weekly Waves Playlist. See you all next time!