Classic Album – REM – Murmur (CD review)

REM – Murmur (1983) 

1983 was the height of MTV and New Wave synth pop: Duran Duran, Michael Jackson and the Eurythmics were dominating the charts.  While all those bands now sound dated, Murmur, released at the same time, is timeless.  Full of jangly guitars, warm melodies and unintelligible lyrics, it was the complete opposite of the slick music passing for pop at the time.

The choice of instrumentation is the real key here.  REM was a typical guitar / bass /drum band – yet Murmur is dominated by acoustic instruments; pianos and guitars, adding a wider palette to their music.  The production is understated; much of the album has a “recorded in the living room” feel.  There are no synths and no “big-Eighties” production.

What makes this work is the blending of Byrds-influenced guitars with just a sprinkling of punk.  Take for example “Laughing,” which starts with an introduction not unlike something from the B-52’s, but then segues into a beautiful track full of strummed guitars.  “9-9,” with its knifing guitar work and talking in the verses, is probably the closest thing to punk on the record.  The re-recorded “Radio Free Europe” is slower and more melodic than their original 1981 version.

Much has been made over the years of singer Michael Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics – about all you can usually make out is the chorus and a line here or there.  Yet, what he’s saying doesn’t really matter – his voice is just another color in the earthy mix.  Recorded at a small studio in North Carolina, this album would send shock waves through the rock world.  Murmur showed that college music could be marketed to the masses and it encouraged a multitude of people to pick up their instruments and play.  It still sounds fresh today.  – Tony Peters