Like all good bands hoping to overcome the sophomore jinx, R.E.M. went back to work with the same team (Mitch Easer and Don Dixon) who’d recorded Murmur. As striking as that album was, in many ways, Reckoning is better.
To further their mystique, they got a little artier, too; the sides were labeled “L” and “R”, the spine of the sleeve suggested listeners “file under water”, and the song titles played havoc with the traditions of capitalization. (For simplicity’s sake, we’ll not replicate those here.)
“Harborcoat” tumbles onto side one with strident guitar and Bill Berry’s trademark half-time drumming, effectively burying most of the words (up until Michael Stipe’s “react” spelling lesson). A simple riff drives “Seven Chinese Brothers”, which is only slightly related to the children’s story of a similar name. The closest thing to a hit single is “So. Central Rain”, better known by its unofficial subtitle “I’m Sorry”. It’s a beautiful melody, with a great vocal. If that wasn’t enough impetus, lots of college kids sought out Rickenbackers to better capture the intro of “Pretty Persuasion”. After four amazing rockers in a row, “Time After Time (AnnElise)” has a more baroque, almost medieval sound, providing more depth to the band.
It’s back to the rock on side two. “Second Guessing” has some clearer lyrics and nicely layered harmonies, while “Letter Never Sent” is a little less urgent. Then there’s a big switch to the moody “Camera”, a lengthy (for them) song of loss that rivals “Perfect Circle” for beauty. For the bulk of the verses, the bass is the backing, with slight color from a Leslie’d guitar, and for the chorus, hints of an organ help to confuse the listener whether Stipe is singing about a simple breakup or death. The simplest of guitar solos keeps the effect powerful. After another brief jam, then it’s a big switch to a country sound for “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”, another wonderful singalong (for the chorus anyway; the rest would be all guesswork for some time). “Little America” is a not-so-enigmatic reflection on the touring life, punctuated by the repeated reference to their manager (“Jefferson, I think we’re lost”).
Maybe it’s the economy of the tracks; Reckoning has ten while its predecessor had twelve. They do pack a lot of greatness into what’s there, coming in just under forty minutes. Or, it could be that the songs are just better. Whatever the reason, trying to justify a top rating isn’t always an easy thing to do. But Reckoning is simply a great album, ensuring that anything they did from here on out would be gobbled up by the fans. (As with Murmur, the 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition includes a contemporary concert, with an eclectic setlist. It also restores the long-lost instrumental snippet that followed “Little America” on the original vinyl.)
R.E.M. Reckoning (1984)—5
2009 Deluxe Edition: same as 1984, plus 16 extra tracks