When R.E.M. released Murmur in April 1983, Michael Jackson’s Thriller was in the midst of a 17-week run as the best-selling album in the country. Murmur was pretty far outside the pop mainstream, but it was also outside the alternative rock mainstream, which included punk rock, electronic dance music, and the anthemic exclamations of U2 and the many similar bands they spawned. R.E.M. was an oddball group—even among fans of oddball music. The quartet from Athens, Georgia, had released a single in 1981—the irresistible “Radio Free Europe”—and an EP, Chronic Town, the following year. On the statistically insignificant evidence of just those seven songs, R.E.M. established an entirely new sound, one that consumed the attention of every college radio fan from Boston to San Francisco. People said R.E.M. sounded like The Byrds—not because the band actually did, but because there weren’t many other groups that had built their distinctive sound around the chiming of a Rickenbacker guitar. Murmur was sometimes jokingly referred to as Mumble, because even the most devout fans didn’t know what Michael Stipe was singing about. Even when he enunciated clearly, the meaning was still elusive: What could “So much more attractive inside the moral kiosk” possibly mean? Stipe knew he was evading the usual tradition of rock lyrics as clear expressions of feelings and thoughts. “Speaking in tongues/It’s worth a broken lip,” he sings on “Pilgrimage,” the album’s winsome second song. There were small touches that laid the groundwork for the band’s future exploits, like the piano in “Perfect Circle” and the cascading cello line in “Talk About the Passion.” But at its core, Murmur is a gauzy, often brisk take on the pastoral side of The Velvet Underground’s first album. Some of the songs had a punkish energy, but the music prioritized composure, even beauty, in a way that was out of step with the tougher vanguard music of Hüsker Dü or Sonic Youth. Throughout Murmur, it’s made clear that the members of R.E.M. were fueled by a belief that meaning doesn’t have to come from language. Drummer Bill Berry wrote the music to the melancholy ballad “Perfect Circle,” which adroitly uses two pianos, played by Berry and bassist Mike Mills in close harmony. Guitarist Peter Buck had watched kids playing touch football at twilight, and became so moved that he sobbed. He related this to Stipe and asked him to capture that feeling in the lyrics. “There’s no football in there, no kids, no twilight, but it’s all there,” Buck said.

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