By: Dennis Cook
It's hard to convey the wriggling freshness R.E.M. possessed upon arrival in 1983. First single "Radio Free Europe" rose from the left side of the dial like a message sent across great distance. The half-decipherable lyrics, the man-boy delivering them, the perfect brutality of the drums and the ringing guitar rainfall, this was no "Europe" any of us had visited before. It sent many of us scrabbling for the original 45 record and stoked anticipation for the band's full-length debut. 25 years on, Murmur: Deluxe Edition (released November 25 on I.R.S./Universal) serves as a poignant, oddly moving reminder that R.E.M. had their act together from the start.
Opening with "Radio Free Europe," we're quickly ushered into the first in what has become a long string of terrifically melancholy ruminations, "Pilgrimage," followed by the strange angles and quick time changes of "Laughing," which rises upon the warm wind of Michael Stipe's exposed, gentle singing. So far, so good, then arguably the band's first bonafide classic, "Talk About The Passion," arrives, clearly the offspring of The Byrds but very much their equal in tintinnabulous gracefulness and heartfelt sentiment ("not everyone can carry the weight of the world"). In "Passion" we hear the kernel of the band that would eventually flood airwaves worldwide and perform before rapt throngs in stadiums everywhere. That they nail the same huge vibe a second time on the same record ("Perfect Circle") is rare feat for a debut. As quirky and intimate as so much of Murmur is there's also the broad, aggressive reach that ultimately propelled R.E.M. to their current place in the pantheon. This was never a band meant for clubs, even if they remain utterly comfortable in that speakeasy atmosphere at places like the 40 Watt in their native Athens, GA. Even if pop music didn't know it at the time, this was the future, and one senses Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass, vox), Bill Berry (drums) and Stipe knew it in their bones from day one.
Murmur was an album one could listen obsessively, and this reissue confirms how really enduring this batch remains. While so much music from 1983 has a painfully dated quality, Murmur arrived out-of-time, a creature of another dimension offering us a friendly paw. There's so much inviting about this album, so many elements calling out to the listener. Their youthful charge to snag us, peck our cheek and tweak our brains remains abundantly evident. And the kicker for this reissue, besides vastly improved fidelity, is a second disc with a live show from Toronto in 1983. Just three months after the release of Murmur, the band already had a ton of new, equally exciting material under their belts, including "7 Chinese Bros.," "Gardening At Night" and "Carnival of Sort (Box Cars)." The live set resonates with the studio release's exuberance with a nice bit of mess thrown on their twang n' twitch groove. Taken together, it's a hell of a reminder of one of the great debuts of the past 50 years in popular music, but more importantly, it's a fresh opportunity to spend time with some seriously great music.
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