It’s still a few days before the next issue of Uncut comes out, but I think I can let slip that REM’s “Accelerate”, while being included in our writers’ Top 50 Albums Of 2008 chart, didn’t actually make it into the Top 40. A disappointing showing for such a hyped “return to form”, maybe.

It’s still a few days before the next issue of Uncut comes out, but I think I can let slip that REM’s “Accelerate”, while being included in our writers’ Top 50 Albums Of 2008 chart, didn’t actually make it into the Top 40. A disappointing showing for such a hyped “return to form”, maybe.



But I was re-reading the blog I wrote about “Accelerate”, and the follow-up post, and much of it still holds true. I’m drawn especially to this bit: “Well, it’s a good record and, as I said, the best since ‘New Adventures’. I can’t imagine that I’m going to reach for this instead of, say, ‘Murmur’, in a couple of years’ time.

Ten months on, I must admit I haven’t revisited “Accelerate” too often, but I seized on the reissue of “Murmur” when it turned up in the office the other day. It’s hard for me to comment on the remastering of the original album because I’ve never owned a CD of the album before. Consequently, I can’t tell whether the clarity of this version is down to the new mastering, or just through hearing it on CD, through a decent sound system.

In some ways, listening to “Murmur” like this is rather jarring. Part of the album’s romance, to me at least, is predicated on its mythical murkiness, its rep as a record of muttered incantations, of hazy provenance. However real or imagined that murkiness might be, hearing “Murmur” with an enhanced crispness feels like part of its indistinct allure has been dismantled.

A lot of its allure remains, though, and it’s still clear why, intermittently over the past 25 years, I’ve cited “Murmur”, professionally and privately, as one of my favourite records.The songs, for a start, are astonishing, and if hearing them with new sharpness privileges one thing, it’s that precarious, odd hybrid of post-punk awkwardness and mellifluous, Byrdsian folk-rock.

“The perfect amalgam of The Velvet Underground and The Doors,” producer Don Dixon is quoted as saying, which I don’t quite get, because it always struck me more that – and again, perhaps this may be a romanticised idea – REM took the brittle, uptight art-rock of New York and then allied it to a vision of the American South that is cryptic, eccentric, yet also warm and rich in tradition. Not much room for The Doors in that.

This comes through even stronger on “Live At Larry’s Hideaway”, the second CD of this deluxe package. It’s a recording of a Toronto gig from the summer of 1983, three months after “Murmur” was released. More than ever here, their post-punk roots are most striking; a clipped, wiry edge to the guitar and bass patterns. What drags the sound away from the rigours of post-punk is, of course, a certain warmth, albeit one that’s baffling rather than conventionally homely.

It’s there in Michael Stipe’s husky, elliptical vocals, and in the phenomenally unsteady harmonies. It’s also present in his between-songs banter, where you get a sense of what Stipe was like before he had completely constructed a persona for himself as a frontman, and with a particular self-consciousness that suggests, onstage at least, he had yet to learn how to make full use of his considerable charisma.

In this raw state, you can hear the evolution of REM’s early songwriting, from the rickety, buzzing likes of “1,000,000”, through the more realised marvels of “Pilgrimage”, “Sitting Still” and “Talk About The Passion”, and on to a couple of “Reckoning” songs, “7 Chinese Brothers” and “Harborcoat”; freshly minted, and with a greater density to their jangle which foreshadowed the band’s development over the next three or four years.

There’s also a cover of the Velvets’ “There She Goes Again”, pretty similar to one I already have somewhere (on “Dead Letter Office”, maybe?), and an early airing for “Just A Touch”, which wouldn’t surface on record for another three years, and “Lifes Rich Pageant”. There, it’s helter-skeltering, muscular. Here, it’s not quite so deranged, spindlier and maybe closer in spirit to something like “West Of The Fields”, though there’s still a catch, a hint of gravel, in Stipe’s voice.

There’s edge, too, to his vocals on “Radio Free Europe”, as the band go into a sort of ramshackle overdrive and he veers out of tune. It’s another way of pulling apart the mystique, I guess, proving that REM were once so fallible. But compared with the last time I saw them play live, at the Albert Hall, what a band they were.