Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’S Early Years by Robert Dean Lurie:
Lyrically, there was nothing on Murmur to pin it to Athens, to Georgia, or even to the South. Musically the story was much the same, apart from some half-assed yodeling on “Shaking Through” and a vague Southern twang here and there. It would seem, then, that the band’s celebrated sense of place, at least on this first album, was largely achieved via smoke and mirrors. Yet the intent was there. In a 2013 interview with Salon, Peter Buck explained the band’s subtle approach: “Art isn’t something that happens in New York or Paris, it happens everywhere. And if it’s good, you can represent where you’re from, to a certain degree. That’s a little bit of what R.E.M. was trying to do. We didn’t say we’re super Southern, but I think we gave a sense of place.”
Something of the place does come through on Murmur, even if it is somehow buried between the actual notes. Later R.E.M. albums would reference Athens and the South more explicitly, but it seems to me that the one-two punch of Chronic Town and Murmur captures the spirit of the town the best—perhaps because the band members were still spending most of their time there. The delicately picked guitar patterns, nasal vocals, and lyrics steeped in mystery seem to suggest a self-contained world willed into existence by its inhabitants. When I first heard Murmur, a good four years after its release, these qualities called out like a siren song; they played a larger role in my decision to attend the University of Georgia than I was willing to admit at the time. I had a vision of an eccentric small town somewhere off in the murky woods, a place where a community had fallen under the spell of art for art’s sake and students and scenesters alike flocked to clubs in droves to pogo-dance to quirky, angular art rock. Astonishingly, the place I found largely matched the place I had imagined (probably the only time in my life that has happened). Now, it’s quite possible that the Athens I envisioned—this mecca of free-spirited creative enterprise—didn’t actually exist when Murmur appeared in 1983. The scene that has been described to me was certainly a vibrant one, but it was also more underground than what I found when I arrived in Athens a decade later. It follows, then, that what I found had, at least in part, been created by Murmur. “As above, so below,” the Hermetic expression goes. Begin with the idea, the myth, then watch it manifest itself in reality.