Confession: I didn’t think much of this album at all when I first heard it, having discovered it via the then-small list of albums Pitchfork gave 10.0 (these days, they seem to stamp any critically acclaimed album with that score). Of course, I adored “Radio Free Europe” for its energy and “Perfect Circle” for being one of the most unique ballads I’ve ever heard, but the rest of the album blurred together. It didn’t help that back then, I put a much greater stock in lyrics, and the fact that I could not hear any (and none of them made sense after pulling out a lyric sheet; “Your luck, a two-headed cow” is emblematic of the stuff that Stipe wrote around this time) and that the contrarian in me wanted to believe that Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark’s Dazzle Ships was the better album of the year. So if there were ever a critically acclaimed album that requires – demands – multiple listens to “get,” it’s this one; obviously their best album, the real best album of 1983, one of the best of the decade and a landmark in indie rock.
Though people often distinguish R.E.M.’s catalog into two categories (pre- and post-Green/Out of Time, depending on when you think R.E.M. sold out), Murmur, and by extension, the previous Chronic Town EP, and the underrated Fables of the Reconstruction, form a conglomerate on their own. Reckoning, also released during this range, is actually a bit of an anomaly; it’s there where R.E.M. began writing more direct/distinct melodies/songs (best example: “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”). But on these three releases, R.E.M. were much more groove-centric as their beginnings as a post-punk outfit dictated. And make no mistake: this is post-punk of the highest caliber; Rolling Stone’s Steve Pond: “Vocalist Michael Stipe’s nasal snarl, Mike Mills’ rumbling bass and Bill Berry’s often sharp, slashing drums cast a cloudy, postpunk aura that is lightened by Peter Buck’s folk-flavored guitar playing.” The opening 12 seconds of “Laughing” could have fit perfectly on Pylon’s album that same year, an underrated band from Athens with some of the most pummeling bass-lines you’ll ever hear that’s more readily equated with post-punk than R.E.M. Meanwhile, the verses of “9-9” feature some of the most deranged playing by Peter Buck ever in the angular attack that’s characteristic of a lot of post-punk outfits.
When I wrote that all of these songs are groove-centric, it’s not to say that they don’t also come complete with some of the band’s best melodies. Here, the band often employ call-and-response to make these melodies stand out: Bill Berry’s big, booming drums (1! – 3! 4!) after Stipe sings “RAY-DI-O-STAYYYYYYYY-SHUN!” (“Radio Free Europe”); “Lighted” being followed by harmonized “Laughing” and that followed again by a descending chord progression (“Laughing”); the quick bass figure during the choruses of “We Walk” and the backing vocals during the choruses of “West of the Fields.” The best example is probably “Catapult,” also my favorite of the bunch, whose choruses possess more of an anthemic quality than does “Radio Free Europe”: the drawn out “CA-TA-PULT” answered immediately by “CATAPULT!” and answered again by an addicting guitar. (And the similarities between the two songs don’t just stop there: the bridges of both feature a metallic clang that adds to the propulsion of both.) And the album is loaded with more counterpoint than on Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier (I’m exaggerating, probably): check out the backing vocals during the choruses of “Pilgrimage,” or better yet, the melodic exchange between Mike Mills’ piano figure and Michael Stipe’s vocals on “Perfect Circle.”
[Actually, on that note, this is an immensely detailed album. That piano line throughout “Perfect Circle” doesn’t sound like a piano at all; thank Mitch Easter for harmonizing the same melody on a grand piano and an out of tune upright one to produce that strange sound. Elsewhere, those aforementioned metallic clangs on “Radio Free Europe” are generated from a vibraphone, if you can believe it.]
Murmur also has the distinction of being the only R.E.M. album without a single subpar track (recall: Chronic Town has “Stumble,” Reckoning has “Camera,” Lifes Rich Pageant has “Underneath the Bunker,” etc.), so let’s examine of the less-talked about songs. I’ve written elsewhere that the bridge and subsequent hook of “Wolves, Lower” was the band at their most chaotic, but Michael Stipe demanding “GET AWAY FROM ME!!!” in the climax of “Sitting Still” easily takes second place. Similarly, I’ve wrote that that sitar-colored “Gardening at Night” was R.E.M. at “their most psychedelic”, but get a load of the bridge in “9-9” (starting at the 1:28 mark), where layered and jumbled voices repeat “What is my mind?” with Michael Stipe holding the last note for so damn long, you’d think his last name was Phelps (it lasts 14 seconds, and if it’s a result of digital manipulation instead of lung capacity, then whatever: it still sounds impressive). The tacked-on instrumental that occurs in the last 30 seconds of “Sitting Through” is just representative of how many ideas the band was bubbling with at this point (compare this to the useless tacked-on addition at the end of “Camera” a year later). And who can deny the closer, when Michael Stipe speed-sings his way through “West of the Fields,” turning four separate words into one awkward-sounding yet awesome syllable?
In the conversation of rare artists who could string together nonsense in a way that makes complete sense (a conversation that includes Ghostface Killah and Robert Pollard and R.E.M.-disciple Thom Yorke), Michael Stipe takes the cake. The lyrics throughout Murmur aren’t inherently sad by themselves, but channeled through Stipe’s cared singing, they become something so much more. Back to “Catapult,” listen to how he grunts through the first three “Did we miss anything?” during the pre-chorus before, angered that we have indeed, he snarls the last instance “Did we miss anythaaaanahh!” Which brings me back to “Perfect Circle,” that seems like Michael Stipe reading a bunch of disconnected lines from his notebook (“Coin a phrase” indeed). Yet, taken as a whole, there’s something sad about it: the anxiety implied in “Shoulders high in the room” (probably social anxiety, as there seems to be a theme of “conversation fear” running throughout the album), the retreat suggested in “Standing too soon,” the way Stipe’s voice moves during the last word of the lines “Eleven shadows way out of place” and “Drink another, coin a phrase”. Given everything, the line “A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends” reads sarcastically; maybe it foreshadows the Facebook era: “It was difficult to connect when friends formed cliques, now it’s even more difficult to connect now that clicks form friends”; “With three thousand friends online and only five I can count in real life, why wouldn’t I spend more time in a world where there are more people that ‘like’ me.”
[There’s a live version of “Perfect Circle” available on Unplugged 1991-2001: The Complete Sessions that features Mike Mills on an organ instead of a piano, Bill Berry on bongos instead of drums, a guitar melody by Peter Buck substituting Mills’ bass, backing vocals everywhere and Michael Stipe singing clearer that’s frankly just as good as the original; you should check it out.]
Lastly, people always compare R.E.M. to the Smiths because they started in the same period (and a lot of people think R.E.M.’s discography might as well have ended when the Smiths hung up their mantle) and because they – more specifically Peter Buck and Johnny Marr – are some of the best examples of jangle pop. But it’s a comparison that’s as lazy as the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones; neither band really has anything to do with the other. In the period before “Everybody Hurts,” Michael Stipe could never be accused of being melodramatically depressing as Morrissey, while the rhythm section of Michael Mills and Bill Berry made the two no-name members of the Smiths look like wallpaper.
More importantly, Peter Buck and Johnny Marr are at the complete opposite ends of the spectrum that is jangle pop; it would be near impossible to mistake one’s style for the other. But even then, the amount of people who say the Smiths “won that war” simply because their discography doesn’t have a black mark on it (whereas R.E.M.’s does) is embarrassing: it’s not like Morrissey and Johnny Marr didn’t also slide into mediocrity; are they forgiven simply because they didn’t release it under the Smiths? (Not to mention that the Smiths’ debut is ridiculously overrated.) And more to the point: bad music doesn’t devalue good music simply by existing; Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones could continually put out bad music until they died and they would still be some of the greatest artists to ever exist.