Murmur, released in 1983, is the debut album from R.E.M., a foursome based in Athens, Georgia, following their 1982 EP Chronic Town. The band's label, indie label I.R.S. Records, had initially wanted a more typically New Wave Music record and set them up with producer Stephen Hague, later known for producing Pet Shop Boys, Erasure and New Order. The sessions with Hague turned out to be a nightmare, with him verbally abusing the band, demanding an incessant number of takes for "Catapult", and adding Echoing Acoustics and synthesizer flourishes (an apparent attempt to get the song to sound like Joy Division) that went against the band's ethos.
Understandably displeased with this environment, R.E.M. held out for the right to record with Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, two Southern musicians they knew and respected; Easter had already produced the band's earlier debut single "Radio Free Europe" from 1981 as well as Chronic Town, and the good working relationship they had with him led the band to heavily prefer Easter over Hague. The resulting album became one of the seminal releases in Jangle Pop and Alternative Indie in general.
Upon release, Murmur was met with overwhelmingly positive critical reception. Record magazine praised its enigmatic tone and rich composition, comparing it to a Film Noir, while Rolling Stone ranked it as the best album of 1983 and the eighth greatest album of the decade, complimenting its artistic advancement following Chronic Town and considering it the band fulfilling the potential they had hinted at on their earlier EP. The album's praise blindsided I.R.S., especially since a great deal of it came from the UK, where the label's distribution was comparatively scarce. This would bite I.R.S. in the ass later down the road. The album was also a considerable commercial success for a band as green as R.E.M., peaking at No. 36 on the Billboard 100 and being certified gold by the RIAA (indicating sales of at least 500,000 copies) in 1991. While it didn't exactly make the Georgia quartet into mainstream superstars, it definitely put them on the map.
Since its release, Murmur's acclaim has only increased: in 2009 the song "Radio Free Europe" was added to the National Recording Registry for being "historically, culturally and aesthetically important". The album was listed at No. 197 on the 2012 edition of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time, being bumped up to No. 165 on the 2020 revision, and is currently the 69th-most-acclaimed album of all time according to Acclaimed Music's compendium of various critics' lists. Among fans, it continues to be regarded alongside Document, Green, Out of Time, Automatic for the People, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi as one of the band's finest works, with many going so far as ranking it as the greatest R.E.M. album. Needless to say, it continuously stands as one of the most beloved and important releases from the first wave of Alternative Rock.
Murmur produced two singles: "Radio Free Europe" (a re-recording of their 1981 debut) and "Talk About the Passion"; the latter was only released in Europe. It would eventually be released stateside in 1988, as the only single from the Eponymous compilation album.
Side One (unlabeled)
- "Radio Free Europe" (4:06)
- "Pilgrimage" (4:30)
- "Laughing" (3:57)
- "Talk About the Passion" (3:23)
- "Moral Kiosk" (3:31)
- "Perfect Circle" (3:29)
Side Two (unlabeled)
- "Catapult" (3:55)
- "Sitting Still" (3:17)
- "99" (3:03)
- "Shaking Through" (4:30)
- "We Walk" (3:02)
- "West of the Fields" (3:17)
Combien... combien... combien de tropes?:
- Adaptational Heroism: "Laughing", a loose retelling of the Olympians' killing of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons, depicts the preacher in a much more sympathetic light than The Iliad did, describing him as "martyred [and] misconstrued."
- Alliterative Title: "We Walk".
- Alternative Rock: Codified the American side of the movement and, along with New Order's Power, Corruption & Lies that same year, marked a shift to it in the indie/underground scene, which had previously been dominated by Post-Punk and New Wave Music.
- Book-Ends: A recording of Michael Stipe rapidly reading off a mantra features at both the start and near the end of "9-9".
- Breather Episode: "We Walk", a bouncy, breezy track tucked within an otherwise musically claustrophobic and lyrically insular album (though not without its own dark undercurrents).
- Color Motifs: Tying in with the band's initial association with blue, the front cover makes prominent use of blue tones, especially on the band name and title text, and blue-tone monochrome photographs of the band members appear on the back cover on LP copies and in the liner notes on CD copies. However, the album's artwork also provides the first hits of the band's more longstanding association with yellow with its heavy use of sepia tones on the back cover and in the liner notes on CD copies, and most UK releases of the album would change the text on the front cover to yellow.
- Compilation Re-release: The album was rereleased with the Chronic Town EP and Reckoning in LP replica sleeves as part of EMI's The Originals series of boxed sets in Europe in 1995 (I.R.S. switched distributors to EMI in 1990 and would remain on the label until they went bankrupt in 1996).
- Covers Always Lie: The tracklist on the back cover of LP copies is completely out of order, with songs from sides one and two interwoven without much rhyme or reasonSpecifically... . The inner sleeve lists the correct configuration, implying that the back cover simply featured an early version of the tracklist and that the running order was changed after the cover art was already printed. CD and cassette copies, meanwhile, list the proper running order on the back cover.
- Cover Version: Not included on the original release of the album itself (though it was originally intended to be), but a cover of "There She Goes Again" by the Velvet Underground is featured as the B-side to the single release of the re-recorded "Radio Free Europe" (and, thusly, featured on the B-side collection Dead Letter Office in 1987). The performance is also included on the 1992 The I.R.S. Years CD reissue as a bonus track.
- Distinct Double Album: A single-disc variant; side one consists mostly of slower songs (apart from the uptempo "Laughing" and "Moral Kiosk"), while side two consists mostly of faster songs (apart from the relaxed-sounding "We Walk").
- Echoing Acoustics: There is a lot of reverb and odd sound on the album to give Martin Hannett a run for his money. The closer "West of the Fields" is a sterling example, as is "Pilgrimage", which opens with Michael Stipe's vocals processed to sound like he's singing from the other side of an orchestra hall. Interestingly, the sessions with Stephen Hague led to the latter outright attempting to get R.E.M. to sound like bands such as Joy Division and The Cure, but his heavy liberties with the studio recordings led to the band axing him, having already grown weary of his dictatorial production methods.
- Everything Is an Instrument: "We Walk" features lots of thunderous noise throughout, though the actual noise itself isn't thunder— it's a recording of Bill Berry playing pool. Producer Mitch Easter recorded the billiard balls hitting at a sped-up pace, then slowed the tape down and added reverb.
- Gratuitous French: "Talk About the Passion" has "Combien de temps?", translating to "For how long?"
- Gratuitous Panning:
- Michael Stipe's rapid-fire monologue in "9-9" plays in the right channel at the start of the song and in the left channel during the bridge.
- Peter Buck's guitar part in "Shaking Through" plays solely in the left channel, with the piano part being heard in the right.
- Hidden Track:
- A small instrumental is tucked away at the end of "Shaking Through", separate from the outro of that song and the intro to "We Walk".
- A vintage radio ad for the album is included in the pregap before the first track on the bonus disc of the 2008 25th anniversary re-release.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: LP copies don't label the sides and the track listing on the back cover is out-of-order, leaving the track listing on the inner sleeve to determine the proper running order. CD and cassette releases feature the tracklist on the back cover in its proper configuration.
- Limited Lyrics Song:
- "Laughing" consists primarily of the same verse and chorus repeated twice, plus a bridge and a slightly different third verse, followed by a repeated, truncated version of the chorus.
- "We Walk" is simply just a single verse and chorus repeated several times over.
- Minimalistic Cover Art: A field of kudzu is the only thing depicted on the album (aside from the band's name and title).
- Motor Mouth: The intro and bridge of "9-9" feature a few spoken lines delivered at top speed by Stipe in the background. Carefully close listening reveals, among other things, a spin on the "Now I lay me down to sleep" bedtime prayer.
- Never Heard That One Before: Many reviewers joked that the album should have been titled Mumble due to Stipe's slurred delivery, which irritated the band.
- Non-Appearing Title: As far as one can tell the word "murmur" doesn't appear in any song's lyrics, although it's a fair descriptor of some of Michael Stipe's vocals. Stipe has said the album was named as such because the word "murmur" is "one of the six easiest words to say in the English language."
- Not Christian Rock: "Pilgrimage" and "Talk About the Passion" both have religious-sounding titles, but their subject matter has more to do with personal quests that Judeo-Christian ones.
- One-Word Title: Aside from Murmur itself there's also "Pilgrimage", "Laughing", and "Catapult".
- Overcrank: Used to achieve the thunderclap sounds on "We Walk": producer Mitch Easter recorded drummer Bill Berry playing pool with the tape running abnormally quickly, so that when it was played back at a normal speed and given some extra reverb, the sound of the billiard balls hitting each other sounded like thunder.
- Post-Punk: While not a straight example of this genre, influences from it prominently feature throughout the album, not only in the songwriting and instrumentation but also in the heavy use of Echoing Acoustics courtesy of producer Mitch Easter; one could consider it the American equivalent of Unknown Pleasures (though R.E.M. thankfully lived to see a third album and then some).
- Protest Song: "Radio Free Europe" has something to do with foreign affairs, although the impressionistic lyrics downplay the protest angle.
- Real Is Brown: The album cover shows a dry brown-green field overgrown with kudzu, the back cover is a sepia photograph of an abandoned railway trestle, and the liner notes on CD copies include sepia photos of alpacas and a paper doll performing a headstand atop a globe. The latter photo is also used as the cover art for the re-recorded "Radio Free Europe" single, and the doll itself is seen in the video.
- Rearrange the Song: "Radio Free Europe" was a re-recording of the band's first single, which was released on Hib-Tone Records back in 1981. The re-recording is slower in tempo, has a more "slapping" percussion sound, and features a more prominent bassline at certain points, overall moving away from the more heavily Post-Punk-influenced angle of the original. "Sitting Still", the B-side to said 1981 single, is also featured on the album, largely unchanged from its 1981 recording except for a re-tuning of the background vocals and Mike Mills re-recording his bass line.
- Record Producer: Mitch Easter and Don Dixon; the former had previously produced Chronic Town. The duo would later return to produce Reckoning.
- The "Take oasis, Marat's bathing" in "We Walk" is a reference to French Revolution figure Jean Marat and the play Marat/Sade. Marat suffered from a skin condition that required him to spend much of his time in the bathtub, from which we would often work, and he was eventually assassinated by a political radical while he bathed.
- "Laughing" references Laocoön, a Trojan preacher from Greek and Roman mythology, who had two sons; all three were strangled to death by sea serpents sent by Athena and/or Poseidon after Laocoön attempted to foil the Trojan Horse plot, first by poking the horse with a spear before suggesting it be burned down. The song, however, gender flips him and renders him female, thanks to Michael Stipe forgetting that the character was male. According to Stipe, the reason for the reference was because he felt that Laocoön's name worked well with the alliterative chorus of "Laughing", and it built up from there.
- Spoken Word in Music: "9-9" features a recording of Stipe rapidly prattling off a mantra at both the beginning of the song and near the end of it; this recording is buried even lower in the song's mix than Stipe's singing, so good luck trying to figure out what he's saying there without looking it up. For those curious, he's specifically saying this:Steady repetition is a compulsion mutually reinforced; now what does that mean? Is there a just contradiction? Nothing much.
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord to hesitate.
- Socially Awkward Hero: The clearest lyric in "9-9" is "conversation fear". Stipe himself has said the topic of the song is "conversation and fear of conversation," tying in well with his own Shrinking Violet personality in the early 80's.
- Something Something Leonard Bernstein: The band would provide the Trope Namer later on, so it's not too surprising a lot of the lyrics are hard to make out...
- Word Salad Lyrics: ...and once you have an idea what they are, it's still up in the air what a lot of them really mean.
- Word Puree Lyrics: Stipe has flat-out said in interviews that "Sitting Still" literally has no lyrics (arguably, however, there are a few loosely-connected phrases here and there — "I can hear you," "up to par and Katie bar," and "talk until you're blue," among others), calling the words he's singing "an embarrassing collection of vowels strung together." This was lampshaded after its performance on the Live at the Olympia 2-CD set, where Stipe (who's been singing the lyrics from a website) notes the comment made at the end of the lyric set:Stipe: (reading) "Note: These lyrics are approximations. Stipe himself has no idea what he says." Thank you, search engine!
- Word Puree Lyrics: Stipe has flat-out said in interviews that "Sitting Still" literally has no lyrics (arguably, however, there are a few loosely-connected phrases here and there — "I can hear you," "up to par and Katie bar," and "talk until you're blue," among others), calling the words he's singing "an embarrassing collection of vowels strung together." This was lampshaded after its performance on the Live at the Olympia 2-CD set, where Stipe (who's been singing the lyrics from a website) notes the comment made at the end of the lyric set:
- Word Salad Lyrics: ...and once you have an idea what they are, it's still up in the air what a lot of them really mean.
- Title-Only Chorus: "Catapult"
- Truck Driver's Gear Change: "Shaking Through" jumps from D to E on the last chorus.
- The Unintelligible: This is where Michael Stipe got this reputation, as he mumbled his lyrics on the album. This is especially the case on "Sitting Still", which simply strings vowel sounds together and loosely approximates words from them. Stipe's delivery would become clearer from their next album onward, though the retention of his murky tone of voice, Word Salad Lyrics, and burial in the mix meant that this reputation stuck until Lifes Rich Pageant.