A train trestle covered in thick kudzu with "R.E.M. / MURMUR" written in blue



R.E.M.'s music often stirs an earnest sense of melancholy in the listener, and their debut album is no exception.  But on Murmur, we get to hear Michael Stipe and company at their infancy as a band, and the results are expectedly beautifully depressing for the most part.  There's a certain rawness and innocence to the band's sound here, a certain vulnerability that would come to define R.E.M. as their career progressed through the next decade.  That honesty and world-weary sincerity are the main appeal of R.E.M.'s sound, and although Michael Stipe sounds somewhat timid throughout the album, he still manages to convey his patented despondency in a profound way.  The band certainly had a pretty unique sound at the time, sporting a modest, yet propulsive, jangley guitar sound, but the there's a lot of dreariness to be found here, which ultimately weighs the album down as a whole.  The best moments here are when Stipe lifts you out of the gloom with uplifting, heartfelt choruses, like on my personal favorite track "Pilgrimage".  That's R.E.M. gold right there, as it really captures the essence of the band if you ask me.  There are a few other classic songs to be found here, and while this is generally considered to be classic album, it's pervasive melancholia makes Murmur a bit of a bummer to listen to straight through, in spite of it's purity.  



A watercolor painting of a snake with two heads that has the names of the songs from Reckoning written on it, with a large white square in the upper-left corner that has "R.E.M." written in it



R.E.M.'s 2nd album did not fall victim to the dreaded "sophomore slump" phenomenon, as Reckoning is overall a modest improvement over their landmark debut album.  There's a slightly more emphatic approach to the music here, as Michael Stripe seems more confident in his delivery, which helps contribute to a stronger set of songs for the most part (i.e. the aptly titled "Pretty Persuasion" and the twangy "Don't Go Back to Rockville").  Haven said that, this is still a dreary and murky record, in the same vein as Murmur, which makes listening to either album straight through in one setting somewhat emotionally draining to a degree.  I would compare it to listening to Radiohead's early/mid 90s material without the visceral guitar distortion, so the lack of "bite" tends to make the proceedings on Reckoning a bit too drab for my tastes.

But the affecting and honest nature of the music ultimately cancels out most of the negatives associated with all the yearning emotional weight that is characteristic of early-R.E.M.  Granted, there would be plenty of "yearning emotional weight" on their future classic records as well, but for yours truly, the excessively gloomy vibe (and lack of resounding/affirming energy) in their early records is ultimately what really stands out to me about them, in spite of the quality material found there.


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