A LOT OF PEOPLE might argue that R.E.M.’s reputation as one of the greatest alternative rock bands (or at least one of the most successful) came with their seminal 1992 album Automatic For The People. This was the result of a path paved with greats such as Green and Document as well as Out Of Time and Reckoning. However I would argue that that reputation was there from the go. Murmur, R.E.M.’s debut, is possibly their best album, as well as one of the best ‘rock’ debuts full stop.
What makes Murmur so good is simple: it’s just 12 great tracks. It’s Post-Punk, with a flourish of Folk all making the foundation of Alternative Rock. R.E.M.’s forays into Pop and a safer sound in later albums have tendencies to be bland and safe, but Murmur exercises creativity and some restraint. Songs such as ‘Talk About The Passion’ and ‘Perfect Circle’ pull from Folk sounds like the driving acoustic guitar, strings and simple drum beats. ‘We Walk’ and ‘Moral Kiosk’ are more New Wave like, fast paced with a Talking Heads sensibility.
‘Pilgrimage’ is a more colourful number, with some whimsical lyrics that even Michael Stipe admits he doesn’t understand. The overall feeling is almost prog-rock like, with a definite King Crimson feel with the wordplay. Opener ‘Radio Free Europe’ is a great example of how to write a great Indie song; with an excellent vocal hook and choppy guitar, R.E.M. could have been remembered for this song alone.
When you take this collection of songs, and look and music in the Western World in the year 1983, it’s not hard to see why R.E.M. hit it big with this record. I mean you’ve got washed up New Wave, Def Leppard hitting it big and Genesis releasing their less-good albums. Obviously this wasn’t all music, but when you’ve college kids out there looking for a new voice, who better to turn to than disillusioned song-smiths who produce some straight rock music that’s a little rough around the edges. Interestingly enough, Metallica’s debut Kill ‘Em All was also released this year; perhaps the two albums have more in common than we thought.
But Murmur feels fresh, and adventurous. It ditches that classic rock macho nature for something inquisitive. It’s intellectual and thought-provoking, and substitutes flashy guitars and effects for something more meaningful. Hearing ‘Radio Free Europe’ or ‘West Of The Fields’ would (and does) change your life, on first listen. The solid bass lines and guitar do The Smiths before The Smiths even existed are something completely different. The lack of in your face guitar solos that might feature in a Guns ‘N Roses album are nowhere to be found, and that highly popular Eighties electronic sound is thankfully abandoned.
Murmur is an album that, 33 years later, still feels wonderful to listen to. Its simplistic structure of vocals, bass, guitar and drums coupled with great song writing makes an album that fails to noticeably age. This album could have been released last week and it wouldn’t be out of place. In my opinion, R.E.M. never really topped this album; they came close, but the sheer excellence and timelessness of Murmur makes it one of the greatest debut albums of all time.
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