1984: R.E.M. - Reckoning

Yeah, I know: either you (1) love R.E.M. and think Reckoning is awesome; (2) hate R.E.M. and no stupid review is going to convince you otherwise; or (3) feel ambivalent about R.E.M. and probably won’t finish reading this review. Regardless, hasn’t enough been written about Murmur, Reckoning, and the whole lot? Isn’t it time to give underrated gems like New Adventures In Hi-Fi some love?

Answers: yes, and oh hell yes. But Reckoning was just reissued, and its new incarnation is something of a revelation. The reputation of R.E.M.’s second record is that, compared to their debut Murmur, you can hear what Stipe is saying. Things only get clearer on this remastered set, and not just in the vocal arena. When Peter Buck’s ringing guitar on “Harborcoat” kicks off the album, it’s as if someone opened the door to the next room where he and his bandmates had been playing all these years.

Reckoning came out only a year after Murmur, part of a creativity burst that would provide R.E.M. with six records in as many years. The band explains this feverish pace in the reissue’s liner notes, with drummer Bill Berry claiming he had no qualms about recording a follow-up so soon. “I knew when we walked in on the first day that the songs were better than the ones on the first album, so I wasn’t worried at all,” says Berry.

Indeed, the songs on Reckoning are mesmerizing. Although Murmur is often seen as the quintessential R.E.M. album, the band grew into its signature sound -- Byrdsian guitars, anthemic melodies, loud-quiet-loud dynamics -- on this album. Some of the disc’s best tracks became career highlights, from the pining “So. Central Rain” (with its chorus consisting entirely of a repeated “I’m sorry”) to the neo-country “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”, a onetime throwaway written by guitarist Mike Mills, slowed down and rebuilt to perfection. Lesser-known songs are just as stunning, including ballads “Camera” (a tribute to their friend Carol Levy, a photographer who was killed in a car accident) and “Letter Never Sent.”

Stipe’s lyrics are typically vague and abstract (“To give away everything is never good, at any time,” he says in the liner notes), and the effect is the creation of a universe in the listener’s mind. Reckoning ends with “Little America,” a snapshot of a young band finding its footing on tour. Its refrain of “Jefferson, I think we’re lost,” though a reference to their manager Jefferson Holt, rings like a faltering manifest destiny, a critique of false Americana. Yet its lyrics are still hazy enough to bear many repeated listens, yielding new interpretations each time.

This reissue comes with a bonus disc containing a live R.E.M. performance from July 1984. It’s not the smoothest listen -- Stipe’s voice strays off-key more than a few times, at crucial moments -- but it provides a remarkable portrait. The band is clearly reveling in their newfound popularity, but not vainly; they sound excited to play for an audience who knows their songs by heart. Conversely, it’s interesting to hear R.E.M. plow into future hits like “Driver 8” without audience recognition.

Although Reckoning is more energetic than its predecessor, it's also more patient and reasoned, as if R.E.M. knew exactly how good they were and were happy taking their sweet time to show you. The live set reinforces this idea, showing a band that, while cool and abstract, always cared about what it was doing and who it was sharing it with.

Reckoning:

1. Harborcoat
2. 7 Chinese Bros.
3. So. Central Rain
4. Pretty Persuasion
5. Time After Time (Annelise)
6. Second Guessing
7. Letter Never Sent
8. Camera
9. (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville
10. Little America

Bonus disc:

1. Femme Fatale
2. Radio Free Europe
3. Gardening At Night
4. 9-9
5. Windout
6. Letter Never Sent
7. Sitting Still
8. Driver 8
9. So. Central Rain
10. 7 Chinese Bros

11. Harborcoat
12. Hyena
13. Pretty Persuasion
14. Little America
15. Second Guessing
16. (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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