With their first full-length release, Murmur, R.E.M. dumped the trademark jangle-pop of their lo-fi debut EP, Chronic Town, for much bleaker themes. Singer Michael Stipe took on a more cerebral socio-political stance, his distant tone casting an elusive cloud over the album’s cultural criticism. The opening line of “Laughing” (“Laocoon and her two sons/Pressured storm tried to move/No other more emotion bound/Martyred, misconstrued”) is an early indication that Murmur’s pleasures aren’t of the simple kind—its gloomy maxims about pilgrimage, spiritual sacrifice and lost time are smartly humorous and satirical. “Talk About The Passion” finds Stipe at his most compassionate, describing a struggle to overcome despair with lyrics that are at once empathetic and pessimistic (“Empty prayer, empty mouths, talk about the passion”).
At the time, most of the folksy songs on Murmur didn’t fit within pop radio’s limitations—these were songs to be listened to, not just danced to. Despite its urgent, Chronic Town-like guitar licks and clickety-clack percussion, “Radio Free Europe,” the album’s only toe-tapper, offers up some of the most playful yet pointed political sarcasm of the band’s career. Inspired by the Radio Free Europe radio station (funded by the U.S. to promote institutional values to countries behind the Iron Curtain), Stipe’s propaganda-hating self-rule is passionate, pointed and biting without sacrificing the rhyme and ingenuity of his lyrics: “Beside defying media too fast/Instead of pushing palaces to fall/Put that, put that, put that before all/That this isn’t fortunate at all.”
If the band’s recent sun-drenched Up and Reveal are any indication, trading in their idealistic jingle-jangle for the intricate truths of yesteryear isn’t in the band’s current agenda. Of course, it would be virtually impossible (even illogical) for the band to reproduce the integrity and infinite charms of Murmur, an album that is very much a product of its time: the graceful chants of “Perfect Circle”; the amusing perplexity of “9-9” and “Moral Kiosk”; the soothing wisdom of Stipe’s voice in “Shaking Through”; and the overall frankness with which Stipe observes the most hypocritical facets of a “democratic” culture that seemingly relies more on the voices of a few than the collective whole. An attempt to clone the achievement of Murmur would also be creatively contradictory. R.E.M.’s career has been propelled by musical evolution, and they’re only one of a handful of bands to have skillfully mastered so many styles. The band isn’t up for fighting today’s problems with the same unshakable scorn of their youth, and their listeners probably aren’t either.