My father likes to tell me the story of a Scottish folk singer who earned respect for his precise enunciation; this is the exact opposite of Michael Stipe’s vocal performance on Murmur where the title refers to his virtual incomprehensibility. R.E.M.’s debut album is an absolute critic’s favourite, and it’s not difficult to see why; the group already had their entire sound figured out, and they’d only get more mainstream and less interesting. The key R.E.M. elements are recognisable on Murmur; Michael Stipe’s arty and cryptic lyrics, Peter Buck’s jangly guitars and Mike Mill’s harmonies are all present.
The opening ‘Radio Free Europe’, with a surprisingly dance-able beat, was a surprise minor hit. The remainder of Murmur, however, is moody and more organic, more typical of the group’s early style. The piano led ‘A Perfect Circle’ and the piano infused ‘Shaking Through’ are particularly pretty, while ‘West of the Fields’ (which sounds like “Wezstzofields” after Stipe’s tonsils get tangled in it) is an appropriate ending, climactic but not losing the rest of the album’s subtlety. Discounting the irritatingly straightforward ‘We Walk’, which is out of place on an otherwise subtle album, Murmur is a flawless debut.
Murmur is a quintessential statement for R.E.M., and there are plenty of fans who would argue that they never bettered their first full length album.