Album Review: R.E.M.'s Murmur at 25

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[R.E.M. released a deluxe, 25th anniversary edition of its debut album, Murmur, today. The two-disc set contains the original album remastered from original tapes and a live concert bootleg from Larry's Hideaway in Toronto from that era. Co-producer Don Dixon will be on my KDHX radio show on Monday night, December 1, between 8 and 10 p.m., as I spotlight Murmur, R.E.M. rarities, outtakes and other assorted ephemera. Here are some thoughts on the album, a quarter-century later. -- Annie Zaleski]

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As a critic, it's always a struggle to figure out how to write about classic albums - mainly because it's more difficult to share new insights about something so many others have covered. It's especially difficult to write about R.E.M.'s Murmur -- which has just been released in a deluxe 25th anniversary edition - because its impact is both concrete and ephemeral.

Released in April 1983, Murmur was a critical hit. Rolling Stone named it the Best Album of 1983, and it placed second in the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll behind Michael Jackson's Thriller. The album peaked at No. 36 on the Billboard Top 200 Album charts and sold around 200,000 copies by the end of the year. Countless bands aped R.E.M.'s enigmatic moods in the years following Murmur's release, with varying degrees of success. (Partial roll call: The Connells, Miracle Legion, Guadalcanal Diary, Big Dipper, Gin Blossoms, Nirvana, Pavement, Live.) But no band smudged its influences together in quite the same ways the Athens, Georgia, quartet did.

Although the Byrds were a popular comparison, R.E.M.'s jangle was in soft-focus, while the psych-folk act's ringing chords were crystal-clear. There was reverence for the past - and plenty of wistfulness and melancholy - but the nostalgia implied was unspecific. Jaunty basslines made the album danceable, but Murmur lacked the glossy synthesizers so popular back in the day. Layered harmonies and textures hinted at psychedelic ends, but the hazy atmospheres felt like idle daydreams, unfinished and unrealized.

Abstractly, though, Murmur sounds like beginnings. The chords of "Laughing" flutter like eyelids upon first waking up, while the bouncy guitar-and-piano interplay on "Shaking Through" conjures the first pastels of morning sun. "Perfect Circle" feels like the timid blushes of a new relationship, a song on which sleepy-eyed piano and a ghostly drum machine convey the initial awkwardness of intimacy. And Murmur's version of "Radio Free Europe" -- which is slowed down and warmed up from its 1982 Hib-Tone single version - features a trotting tempo and robust rustic-twang chords, like the song has been sunning itself lazily on the lawn all morning.

Other songs convey innocence that's child-like, while lacking the fragility or vulnerability associated with naivete. "We Walk" is a playground-chant waltz, while vocalist Michael Stipe sounds like a mewling choirboy on "Catapult." A dignified but downtrodden guitar melody and a comforting reassurance - "Not everyone can carry the weight of the world" - drives "Talk About the Passion," Murmur's clearest declaration of longing.

This clarity is famously missing from Murmur. Words shape-shift into different meanings with each listen, like magnetic poetry for the ear. In "Pilgrimage," is the lyric, "Your luck, a two-headed cow" or "Your luck, a two-headed coin"? Does Stipe croon, "Pull your dress off / And stay real close" or "Pull your dress on / And stay real close" during "Perfect Circle"? In both songs, either phrase works - but the connotations wildly differ.

"Radio Free Europe," live 1983:

Yet part of the album's beauty is how its messages and textures remain cryptic and mystical, even a quarter-century later. (What exactly is a "Moral Kiosk," and why is life so much more attractive there? I'm still not sure.) I'm also not sure what the "right" lyrics are, or even what any of the songs mean. But nearly fifteen years after first hearing Murmur, I don't want to know. Puzzling over those images is part of the fun of listening to Murmur, even now. The album's intellect lurks below the surface; it doesn't need to loudly announce its smarts, because its built-in intelligence is obvious.

A bonus disc packaged with the reissue contains a 1983 concert from Toronto. (Although supposedly unreleased, this show is actually an incomplete version of a gig that's been available on bootlegs for years.) The manicured delicacy of Murmur's music is in direct contrast with the band's often raucous or ragged concerts. The live version of "Radio Free Europe" features dramatically off-key vocals from Stipe, as does an early version of Reckoning's "Harborcoat."

A loose cover of the Velvet Underground's "There She Goes Again" is brisker and brighter than the original, with scorched hints of R.E.M.'s garage-rock roots. "Just a Touch," which wouldn't surface in its studio incarnation until 1986's Life's Rich Pageant, is equally garage-howl, while a punked-up rendition of "West of the Fields" is full of waterfalling harmonies. While overall not as off-kilter or out-of-control as other shows from that era, the live tracks showcase how quickly R.E.M. became a must-see live act - the manifestation of instant musical chemistry and constant gigging around Athens, Georgia (and regionally).

Above all, Murmur is a classic album because it just sounds like itself. Many who tried to ape its non-sequiturs sounded pretentious, while plenty of jangle-pop followers often sounded diluted and anemic. R.E.M.'s mystery wasn't manufactured or calculated; the group accidentally stumbled upon its introspective alchemy. And Murmur still sounds effortless, an album whose unconventional beauty and rueful sadness are timeless.

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