From the hard to make out lyrics (“They called the clip a two-headed cow / Your hate clipped and distant, your luck, pilgrimage,”) through to the murky, unattractive cover art – nothing is made too easy on R.E.M.’s debut album.
R.E.M. were clearly not interested in perfection but rather the interesting tensions that came from ambiguity, originality and raw energy. The producer was to be Stephen Hague but the band successfully fought to have him fired after they found his obsession with technical perfection stifling.
When Murmur was released, it was praised by critics as an instant classic and reinforced Athens as one of the most exciting music scenes in the country. Only the fifth largest city in Georgia, Athens was a student town experiencing a creative explosion. As Josh Jackson writes in Paste Magazine, while “Athens wasn’t a one-horse town, neither was it Greenwich Village or San Francisco…But there’s something about a college town nestled in some small corner of rural America that ignites creativity in kids who grow up in towns like Macon, Ga., or Collinsville, Ill., and discover that there actually are others out there who share their passion for music, film or art.”
“Other college towns… would eventually get their moment. But in 1983, the spotlight was on Athens, thanks to R.E.M.’s full-length debut, Murmur.” Bands to have come out of Athens include the B-52’s, Indigo Girls, The Whigs and Drive-By Truckers.
Murmer’s cover art is a grainy tribute to the Southern landscape – one that is slowly being swallowed by kudzu, the agricultural nuisance you see on the cover. Imported from Japan, kudzu was originally considered exotic until it took on the qualities of an indestructible weed.
On the back cover of the record, we see a sepia-toned photo of a disused trestle, which was once part of the Georgia Railroad line into downtown Athens.
Before long, it was referred to as the “Murmur Trestle” by proud locals and, much like other landmark covers we discussed recently, became a point of pilgrimage for loyal fans.
In 2000 moves were made demolish it. But after a public outcry, which stressed not only the trestle’s importance in pop culture but also heritage value, the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission voted to save the trestle in October 2000.
If R.E.M.’s portrait of its hometown is far from flattering, depicting a milieu riddled with overgrowth and crumbling infrastructure, it also originated the band’s policy of avoiding their own portraits on sleeves. As Pitchfork notes, the “group pointedly didn’t appear on its album covers or inner sleeves; instead, R.E.M. remained confident that a kudzu-covered ravine or a folk-art painting could speak more strongly about their music than their own presence ever could.”
Murmur was considered a commercial disappointment upon release and to date has only been certified gold (500,000 units). At the same time, it was named by Rolling Stone as the Best Album of 1983, pulling ahead of competition that included Thriller and U2’s War.
In 1996 R.E.M. re-signed with Warner Bros. for a reported $80 million in one of the biggest recording deals ever. In 2007 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Starting out small and exotic worked for the band, whose eventual dominance proved as irresistible as the kudzu claiming their homeland.