For a very long time, Automatic For The People was the only R.E.M. album I knew, and “Everybody Hurts” the only song of theirs I really cared about. I didn’t know they’d been releasing albums for about ten years before that came out, and was put off finding anything else by them after I heard Out Of Time, which I hated. I’m still a little bit annoyed at the person who recommended that to me.
I like to think of R.E.M. as the American Smiths who never split up. They’re not worlds apart, with their marriage of jangly guitars and miserable(ish) singers, and their huge cult following. Right from the start, though, R.E.M. honed a sound that was distinctly theirs and, like The Smiths, a lot of this sound revolved around how the guitar player played and how the lead singer sang.
Like many R.E.M. albums, Murmur begins with probably the best song on the record, “Radio Free Europe”. Released as the group’s first single, the lyrics are fairly nonsensical and undecipherable in places, but the chorus definitely isn’t. While the Cure-like keyboard stabs sound a bit dated, the rest of the song has aged quite well, much like the rest of the album. “Pilgrimage” comes next and is another of many highlights, as is the beautiful “Perfect Circle”, showing R.E.M. had a knack for writing heartbreaking melodies from a very early stage.
There aren’t many criticisms I can throw at Murmur. The only song I don’t like is “We Walk”, with its hoedown chords and silly lyrics, though the thunderclaps are quite a nice touch. There are a couple of others on the second half of the album that are a little bit more forgettable than those that come earlier (“Sitting Still” and “9-9”), but “Shaking Through” helps to pick things up just when it feels like things might be thinking about starting to drag.
I only heard Murmur for the first time less than a year ago, so I don’t think I’ve yet given it all the attention it deserves. It’s supposed to be a stone cold classic but, although it’s getting better with every listen, I’m not quite hearing that yet. It’s taken me a long time to get into R.E.M., but I think I’m getting there and this is definitely an album I’ll regularly revisit.