R.E.M.'s Chronic Town EP was one of last year's more invigorating, tuneful surprises: a record from an Athens, Georgia, band that cared not a whit for the fashionable quirks of that town's dance-rock outfits like the B-52's or Pylon. R.E.M. fashioned its own smart, propulsive sound out of bright pop melodies, a murky, neopsychedelic atmosphere and a host of late-Sixties pop-rock touches. The execution wasn't always up to the ideas — instrumentally, the band was still stumbling at times — but Chronic Town served notice that R.E.M. was an outfit to watch. Murmur is the record on which they trade that potential for results: an intelligent, enigmatic, deeply involving album, it reveals a depth and cohesiveness to R.E.M. that the EP could only suggest.
Murmur is a darker record than Chronic Town, but this band's darkness is shot through with flashes of bright light. Vocalist Michael Stipe's nasal snarl, Mike Mills' rumbling bass and Bill Berry's often sharp, slashing drums cast a cloudy, postpunk aura that is lightened by Peter Buck's folk-flavored guitar playing. Many of the songs have vague, ominous settings, a trait that's becoming an R.E.M. trademark. But not only is there a sense of detachment on the record — these guys, as one song title says, "Talk about the Passion" more often than they experience it — but the tunes relentlessly resist easy scanning. There's no lyric sheet, Stipe slurs his lines, and they even pick a typeface that's hard to read. But beyond that elusiveness is a restless, nervous record full of false starts and images of movement, pilgrimage, transit.
In the end, though, what they're saying is less fascinating than how they say it, and Murmur's indelible appeal results from its less elusive charms: the alternately anthemic and elegiac choruses of such stubbornly rousing tunes as "Laughing" and "Sitting Still"; instrumental touches as apt as the stately, elegant piano in the ballad "Perfect Circle" and the shimmering folkish guitar in "Shaking Through"; above all, an original sound placed in the service of songs that matter. R.E.M. is clearly the important Athens band.