Friday, November 18, 2022

REM #1: Murmur (1983)

Release Date: April 12, 1983

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Michael Mills (bass, keyboards); Bill Berry (percussion)

Produced by Don Dixon and Mitch Easter

Track List: Radio Free Europe; Pilgrimage; Laughing; Talk About the Passion; Moral Kiosk; Perfect Circle

Side Two: Catapult; Sitting Still; 9-9; Shaking Through; We Walk; West of the Fields

One of the most influential debut albums of the 1980s, Murmur introduced REM to the world with a stately grace. 

The iconic opening track "Radio Free Europe" is a clarion call. The repeat play potential of the song is unlimited. It stands in contrast to the earlier single version, which is more punk in delivery and attitude. On Murmur, "Radio Free Europe" is diamond layered with arcane imagery, a technicolor light show of the mind. Stipe's sublime vocal promises something new for all willing to heed the call. 

The anthemic "Pilgrimage" thumps along with Stipe's mysterious vocals alluding to a spiritual journey but not like Chaucer. The grotesque imagery of "two-headed cows" and "broken lips" are contrasted with Berry's adventurous drumming. "Laughing" is irresistibly melodic with Peter Buck's guitar and Stipe's vocal blending perfectly. A snapshot of a mother and her two sons possibly in search of a better situation, finding peace through humor and each other.  

"Talk About the Passion" features more melodic hooks and stirrings of transcendence. "Moral Kiosk" is  opaque and sublime, pushing the boundaries of the pop song's potential. The idea of a moral kiosk, post-religion in its implication, suits the album's allusions to a spiritual quest. "Perfect Circle" is proof pop songs can be beautiful. A lullaby of sorts, also a hymn for a world engulfed with consumerism and ill-shaped opinions.

A wave of childhood nostalgia permeates "Catapult", it's got the drive of a Gen-X TV commercial jingle by way of William Wordsworth. "Sitting Still" is a tossed of track of fragmented lyrics and Byrds like harmonies. "9-9" could be the most cryptic track, expressing an existential unease. "Shaking Through" uses more disjointed imagery, sonically all over the place and it's great. 

"We Walk" is catchy and ominous with references to the French Revolution. "West of the Fields" closes the album and like "Pilgrimage" and inverts and turns spiritual ideas inside out - hinting at an eternal journey - even after death. 

Murmur breathed life into American music during the mid-1980s. With their hardscrabble origins, REM brought a poetic sensibility of a romantic and gothic variety, drifting between forebodings of joy and dread. The songwriting eschewed narratives in favor of expressionism, welcoming to all listeners, interactive by design.

For Albino Carillo (1964-2022)

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers #2: You're Gonna Get It

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