[Review] R.E.M.: Reckoning (1984)

No big hits this time, but a good batch of songs where the band’s sound really begins to crystallize.

Kronomyth 2.0: I reckon it’ll deux.

Radio Free Europe had felt like a rallying cry. There was no rallying cry on Reckoning. It was a good album whose best song (“So. Central Rain”) sounded like an updated version of David Bowie’s “An Occasional Dream.” Three of the album’s best tracks–“Harborcoat,” “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” “7 Chinese Bros.”–had been in the band’s live repertoire before Murmur, from which you could draw the conclusion that even the best of Reckoning wasn’t good enough for Murmur.

So why do fans rally around Reckoning? Because it’s the more prototypical of the band’s first two albums. R.E.M. seems to have lightened up since Murmur, Peter Buck’s arpeggios are in fine form, and (perhaps most importantly) Michael Stipe appears comfortable in his role as lead singer and lightning rod. Nothing on Reckoning is required listening, yet the album is classic R.E.M. all the same. You can feel it in the dreamy, jangly, Byrdsian guitars. You can hear it in Mike Mills’ yearning voice (though the harmonies would click better, later). Where Murmur was militant, Reckoning is innocent.

Nothing on their second album sounded like Gang of Four; instead, the shadows of sunnier Englishmen like The Smiths and Echo & The Bunnymen could be seen. An appearance on the David Letterman Show in late 1983 set the tone for the transition. They played two songs: the shocking “Radio Free Europe” and the charming “So. Central Rain.” Like a lot of bands, R.E.M. wanted to change the world with their first album. On their second, they just wanted to make the next forty minutes a better place to be. They succeeded, and both critics and fans took notice of the fact.

Of interest, many of the song lyrics allude to water, and the album was even subtitled “File Under Water” on the album spine. Water means life, death and a bunch of other things I suppose (including water). I’m not really sure what Stipe had in mind with the water imagery or the two-headed snake on the cover, but I’ll promise to ignore it if you do. [Deluxe Edition note: It’s a nice repackage, but the live disc didn’t ignite my world or anything. Maybe early versions of “Hyena” and “Driver 8” or a cover of VU‘s “Femme Fatale” will ignite yours, I don’t know.]

Original elpee version

A1. Harborcoat (3:51)
A2. 7 Chinese Bros. (4:15)
A3. So. Central Rain (3:11)
A4. Pretty Persuasion (3:53)
A5. Time After Time (Annelise) (3:39)
B1. Second Guessing (2:50)
B2. Letter Never Sent (2:57)
B3. Camera (5:21)
B4. (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville (4:34)
B5. Little America (2:56)

All songs written by Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe.

The I.R.S. Years CD reissue bonus tracks
11. Wind Out
12. Pretty Persuasion (live)
13. White Tornado (live)
14. Tighten Up
15. Moon River

Deluxe Edition bonus disc (Live at the Aragon Ballroom)
B1. Femme Fatale
B2. Radio Free Europe
B3. Gardening at Night
B4. 9-9
B5. Windout
B6. Letter Never Sent
B7. Sitting Still
B8. Driver 8
B9. So. Central Rain
B10. 7 Chinese Bros.
B11. Harborcoat
B12. Hyena
B13. Pretty Persuasion
B14. Little America
B15. Second Guessing
B16. (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville

The Players

Bill Berry (drums/vocals), Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass/vocals), Michael Stipe (lead vocal/instrument). Machinists: Don Dixon and Mitch Easter.

The Pictures

Artist: Howard Finster.

The Plastic

Released on elpee, brown vinyl elpee (in the US) and cassette on April 9, 1984 in the UK (IRA, IRSA 7045), on April 17, 1984 on the US (IRS, SP/CS 70044) and in 1984 in Japan (IRS, 28AP-2847); reached #27 on the US charts (RIAA-certified gold record) and #91 on the UK charts.

  1. Re-issued on compact disc in 1985 in the US (IRS, CD 70044).
  2. Re-released on expanded, remastered The I.R.S. Years edition compact disc in September 1992 in the Netherlands (IRS, 7 13159 2) and Japan (IRS/EMI, TOCP-53567) with 5 bonus tracks.
  3. Re-released on remastered elpee and compact disc in 1996 in the US (Mobile Fidelity, MFSL1-266/UDCD-677) with gatefold cover.
  4. Re-released on 180g vinyl elpee in 2009 in the US (IRS, B0013029-01) and in the UK (Universal, 2707469).
  5. Re-released on expanded, remastered Deluxe Edition 2CD on June 22, 2009 in the US (IRS, B0013032-02) and in the UK (Universal, 2707622) with bonus disc.

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