The Great Albums

R.E.M., Murmur

February 24, 2002



The mysteries of R.E.M.'s first album begin with the striking cover image of an alien landscape overgrown with ravenous kudzu, rendered in muted sepia tones that bring to mind the haunting Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady.

In large, typewritten letters in the upper left-hand corner is the band's name--fans know that the initials stand for "rapid eye movement," the phase of the sleep cycle during which dreaming occurs--and under that, much smaller, comes the title: "Murmur."

It all sets the stage for one of rock's most perfectly sustained mood albums.

Singer Michael Stipe has often said that the title was chosen because it's one of the easiest words to pronounce in the English language. It also happens to be wonderfully descriptive of his vocal style at the time. Rock critics who weren't enchanted by the disc would derisively call it "Mumble," but these non-believers were in the minority.

While R.E.M. would become known as one of America's quintessential "Southern bands," none of the members were actually born in the South. Guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills both spent their early years in California; Stipe was an Army brat who lived in Germany for a time, and drummer Bill Berry was born in Duluth, Minn. Family moves brought them all to the Peach State, while the University of Georgia eventually drew them to the tiny college town of Athens.

United by a lust for excitement and a love of punk and New Wave music, each member brought considerable experience to the group, especially in terms of how to craft an image and build interest. Mills and Berry had served as the rhythm section in several different bands, and Berry had worked for a booking agency run by Miles Copeland, brother of Police drummer Stewart Copeland and the man who founded R.E.M.'s first real label, I.R.S. Records.

Berry knew that touring was the key to creating an audience. Meanwhile, Stipe and Buck were voracious music lovers who devoured the rock press and learned the benefits of myth-making. From the beginning, Buck was loquacious in interviews, spinning romantic tales about the abandoned church where the band practiced, and equating its travels up and down the Eastern seaboard with the wanderlust of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." And Stipe ... well, Stipe was mysterious, elliptical, and enigmatic, a cipher waiting to be decoded, or a Rubik's Cube yearning to be solved.

While the punk explosion of the mid-'70s never caught on as a commercial force in America as it did in England, it did give birth to a thriving underground. By the early '80s, there was a strong network of small, independent labels and a string of clubs, fanzines and college radio stations to support them. R.E.M. tapped into this scene, took full advantage of it, and arguably became its biggest cheerleader.

The band made its recorded debut in the summer of 1981 with a song that paid homage to the spirit of the young, independent broadcasters. (Rock 'n' Roll Truism No. 3: If you want to get radio play, write a great song celebrating radio.) The tiny Hib-Tone label only pressed 1,000 copies of "Radio Free Europe," but the single topped the Village Voice's year-end critics' poll, and the attention helped the band land its deal with I.R.S.

The group's debut E.P. was recorded at Mitch Easter's Drive-In Studio, a.k.a. the basement of his mom's house in Winston-Salem, N.C. Dark, layered, intricate, but melodic--an American answer to British bands like the Psychedelic Furs and the Smiths--1982's "Chronic Town" was an auspicious debut, but it only hinted at what was to come.

The group continued working with Easter for its first full album, but it moved from the Drive-In to a professional 24-track facility called Reflection in Charlotte, N.C., a place more familiar with recording gospel acts. The band claims to have entered the studio with all 12 songs and even the sequence already set, but plenty of outtakes later emerged on B-sides and rarities collections, including a handful of memorable covers.

Throughout the sessions, there was pressure from I.R.S. to produce a hit, but Easter and the band say they tuned the company out and proceeded to craft the sort of finely textured cult album they adored: "Big Star III," "The Velvet Underground III," "Tonight's the Night" by Neil Young, or "Pink Flag" by Wire. The production was dense but inviting, like a cloud of sweet-smelling perfume, and it was full of small but inspired touches: clanging bells, a moaning cello, odd, metallic ringing noises, wooden clacking, and a vocal treated to sound as if it was coming through a megaphone.

In An R.E.M. Companion: It Crawled from the South , the most illuminating book about the band, Marcus Gray quotes Easter as saying he had to talk the minimalist group into making a more elaborate recording. "They weren't particularly interested in being real fancy," the producer said. "Actually, it was sort of a struggle for me and [engineer Don] Dixon to get them to accept any additional stuff on the record."

Always adept at rewriting history, Buck now takes full credit for the psychedelic tilt--even though he disavowed that adjective at the time. "Certainly, a lot of things on 'Murmur' reflected my familiarity with the Byrds, the Beach Boys, or psychedelic stuff, which was new to the others," he said in one recent interview. "I'd do something in the studio and Michael would be like, 'Wow, that's really wild, that's weird.' And actually, it was something I ripped off from some totally obscure English '60s band."

A canny, self-taught primitive, Buck's biggest asset as a musician is impeccable taste. There's hardly a single conventional guitar lead on the album, arguably because he couldn't play one at the time. Instead, he fashions a signature rhythm sound that is gorgeously chiming and jangly (the obligatory rock-crit descriptions for early R.E.M.), drawing heavily on the trademark Rickenbackers of the early Byrds, with the occasional burst of Velvets-style feedback and garage-rock fuzz thrown in for emphasis.

While Buck strums away, Mills provides the songs' melodic counterpoints with his ultra-musical bass parts, and Berry shows considerable imagination in varying his propulsive backbeats with deft and colorful use of elaborate patterns on the tom-toms. Both also add beautiful harmony vocals, though these wouldn't be fully perfected until the next album, "Reckoning," and the discs that followed.

At the center of it all is Stipe's rumbling, nasal baritone. Deliberately slurring his words, he seems to be singing into his sleeve or lurking in the shadows just off mike, rather than dramatically annunciating like an opera singer or a traditional pop crooner. Like Brian Eno (who intellectualized singing nonsense syllables) or the great doo-wop groups (who did it instinctively), Stipe knew that words chosen merely for the way they sound and phrases that suggest something without actually saying anything can be much more powerful than lyrics that try to tell a story, because the listener is free to fill in the blanks with his or her imagination.

Village Voice rock critic Tom Carson contended that Stipe's singing evoked the feeling of a child who wakes up in the middle of the night and is galvanized by the pile of clothes left on the floor in the corner, which seems to have metamorphosed into something altogether different in the darkness. But critics often over-emphasize Stipe's mumbling.

Perhaps 30 percent of the lyrics on "Murmur" are intelligible. With the exception of "Radio Free Europe"--which appears in a new version more subtle, less immediate, but no less potent than the original single--it's hard to say what any of the songs are "about." But the phrases that pop out of the haze paint an impressionistic portrait of life in the underground circa the early '80s, lionizing those who chose to live an alternative lifestyle in the face of Reaganism, yuppie greed, and growing cultural intolerance.

"The pilgrimage has gained momentum ... Martyred, misconstrued ... Empty prayer, empty mouths, talk about the passion ... Not everyone can carry the weight of the world ... Oh, we were little boys/Oh, we were little girls ... I can hear you/Can you hear me?"

Coupled with the swirling sounds of the album, the strength of the melodies, and the passion of the performances, scattered lines such as these are as moving today as they were when R.E.M. first won its rabid cult following. (Platinum success wouldn't follow until four years later, with 1987's "Document.") "If 'Murmur' sold 8 million copies, I don't know where we'd be today," Buck told me in 1996, comparing his band's career arc to that of Nirvana. "I'd like to think it wouldn't have gotten as far as it did with Kurt [Cobain], but I don't know if we'd be here now."

In fact, R.E.M. is here but not here, the richest and most celebrated American band of its generation. It continues to make music that ranges from mediocre to very good (but not great), though it's no longer the band that made "Murmur."

Berry quit and the others continued, though they vowed they never would. I recently saw Stipe on "Entertainment Tonight," dueting with Cher on "I Got You, Babe," and pronouncing every word all too clearly. Buck was arrested last year for causing a drunken rock-star scene onboard an airplane, and the last time I interviewed Mills, he grew furious when I suggested that it was hypocritical for the band to attack Ticketmaster on Capitol Hill, then go along with the $15 service charge that the company added to the $50 tickets for the band's last tour.

Sadly, R.E.M. circa 2002 is more likely to talk about the passion than to express it as purely and eloquently as it did on "Murmur," which stands as its most impressive and innovative work, and the one most deserving of a place in the pantheon beside the classic albums the musicians loved most.