One of the weirdest moments in the education of every rock critic currently under age 35 is to see R.E.M.’s 1983 full-length debut, Murmur, described as “revolutionary,” “groundbreaking” and "game-changing.” And that’s not even taking the band’s unbelievable ’90s popularity into consideration. Today, Murmur initially sounds simply like a great pop-rock record, one that set the tone for the rest of R.E..M.’s career, and in terms of pure good songs, it still may be their best album (with a few challengers). The real devil of Murmur’s impact is in the historical details.
But oh, what wonderful details those are, and what treasures they ultimately provide when listening to Murmur with an informed ear. Murmur was many things that were decidedly uncool in 1983. It was a pop album trading in guitars instead of synths; a punk album with hardcore social ties that was distributed by the majors and sounded soft; a vocals-heavy album where no one could understand what the fuck the deal was with the vocalist.
The whole enterprise worked thanks to the strengths of each band member and a production crew brave enough to try to harness such a weird mix. That strange brew — the combination of jangly pop and bird-flippin’ punk, intermittently sweet and psychotic vocals, and a rhythm section trained in the Velvet Underground school of inflated urgency — would ultimately provide the blueprint for every Frank Black, Bob Mould and Kurt Cobain who would ever listen to the album. You can draw a staight line from a “Catapult” to “1979,” or from “We Walk” to “Big Me,” which doesn’t sound all that impressive until you realize there’s over a decade’s worth of music between those points.
Despite how relatively benign the album sounds on the first few listens, its layers of complexity are virtually infinite, even 25 years later. The anti-payola ramblings of “Radio Free Europe” still hits just as hard whether or not you understand what’s going on, and the song only gets more aggressive with each listen. With all the jangles of Peter Buck’s guitar, it’s easy to overlook his incredible range as a guitarist. It’s even easier to overlook the break he takes from melody for the Gang of Four-inspired racket of “9-9.” Meanwhile, the still underappreciated Mike Mills-Bill Berry rhythm duo produces timeless treasures such as the freewheelin’ bass on “Laughing” or “Moral Kiosk.” Berry looks like a genius just by upping the pace ever so slightly on tracks like "Sitting Still."
Of course, the real star of the show is Michael Stipe, recently snubbed by Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest singers. Which is a shame, because though there’s simply no way to compare Stipe’s singing to anything that came before it, there are thousands of reference points for comparison afterward. Stipe didn’t wail like a blues legend, didn’t get choked up like a soul singer, and didn’t bark like a punk singer. Instead, he sang like Michael Stipe: delicate but nerdy, restrained but with a chip on his shoulder. If R.E.M. has ever been confused as a jam band, it’s due purely to Stipe’s forthrightness in his singing, even when making noises no singer had thought to make before. It was the most punk way Stipe could have sung, in that there was no way anyone could have expected any singer to sound like that.
The 25th anniversary edition of Murmur comes at a low point for album rock. It’s hard to fathom today that despite all Murmur’s accolades, it took eight years to even go certified gold. For the deluxe edition’s sake, it’s even worse that A&M is trying to sell an album everyone now already owns. While the jacket essays are nice, they’re not enough to fully give Murmur its due. The real treasure of the Deluxe Edition of Murmur is the previously unreleased live materials from 1983. This is easily the best live R.E.M. recording ever released. It shows a band that would later fill arenas still sounding intimate in a club, even while making that club sound like a stadium.
It’s understandable the band would avoid getting in the way of Stipe’s singing on record, but the gorgeous vocal harmonies on display here reveal a side of R.E.M. that’s never been heard in recorded form before. Early on, the band still had a tendency to make their shows one of the most urgent acts around. While hardcore punks were beating each other up at the expense of music, R.E.M. was turning tracks like “Pilgrimage” and “Talk About the Passion” from intriguing songs on record to the most vital songs anyone had heard since “Heroin” or “Sister Ray.”
R.E.M. has been promising a smaller club-circuit tour since the late ’80s, and this album shows us just what we’ve been missing. Even when the crowd turns hostile, the band stays remarkable cool and respectful. With hardcore punk raging, this was one of the more radical things they could have done. It would be a tactic Fugazi would replicate five years later.
Twenty-five years later, Murmur still remains a music nerd’s album, despite its populist appeal. From the lowest to the highest level of understanding, Murmur is a pure joy, one the world was lucky to see at exactly the right time. It will forever be listed among the top 100 albums precisely because of how impossible it is not to like, on whatever level you appreciate it.