REM’s second album, the jangly, hook-filled Reckoning may not have initially come as quite a surprise as their debut, Murmur. That record was a shot out of left field, a surprising combination of Americana and garage rock that was as beautiful as it was ensconced in the murk of the swamp on the cover. However, Reckoning was somewhat more of a straightforward record. It wasn’t so much glossier or over-produced, but rather a return to more of the garage sound that marked their first release, Chronic Town. Peter Buck’s guitar playing played a central role on the album, creating a Byrds-like feel on many of the tracks, while attempting a more abrasive approach on others. And frontman Michael Stipe, enigmatic and shaggy, still played the part of Mumbly Joe, under-enunciating his verses, yet carrying a hell of a melody nonetheless.
Opening track “Harborcoat” is immediate evidence of the shift in sound, with a traverse back and forth between Byrds jangle and Gang of Four-like post-punk, Mike Mills’ bass playing as taut and wiry as ever. Stipe’s lyrics are vague, offering couplets like “they crowded up to Lenin with their noses worn off/a handshake is worthy if that’s all you’ve got.” Yet, there is no doubt something more intellectual behind his cryptic lines, people often going to doctoral attempts to decipher his lyrics. Of course, as it took him some time to actually start singing words that could be discernable from “murmurs,” most of the lyrics on Reckoning are anyone’s guess.
“Seven Chinese Brothers” takes its inspiration from a children’s story, yet there exists an alternate take on the band’s Dead Letter Office compilation, titled “Voice of Harold,” on which Stipe merely reads the text off of an old LP. “So. Central Rain” is one of a few timeless singles from the album, a country-flavored pop song with some of Stipe’s more direct lyrics about, well, rain, and a break-up. Due to the choral refrain of “I’m sorry,” the song is often credited as “South Central Rain (I’m Sorry).” Yet, in spite of its country-ish sound, the song delves into a more discordant outro, Mike Mills pounding on harsh piano chords while Stipe yelps out some wordless howls.
“Pretty Persuasion” is also a favorite, for its memorable opening hook, played by Buck, and anti-consumerist lyrics like “It’s what I want/hurry and buy.” It’s one of the most energetic songs on the record, as well as catchiest, yet was curiously not included on the Eponymous collection released around the time that the band had moved to Warner Bros. “Camera,” a slower, organ driven track, found Stipe singing with less of a mush-mouth, sweetly paying tribute to a friend of theirs, fittingly a photographer, who had died in a car accident. Stipe lifts his voice, slightly, during the chorus, singing “If I’m to be your camera, then who will be your face?” Returning to a country-ish sound on “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville,” REM create their other “hit” from the album, a decidedly more upbeat companion to “So. Central Rain,” This was long before the word alt-country was being thrown around, though a slightly uncharacteristic song for the band, yet played without the slightest bit of irony.
The album closes with “Little America,” which features an opening riff similar to that of “Pretty Persuasion,” and similarly, this song keeps up a sprightly pace, while Stipe rattles off a series of roadside musings and observations, coming to a head at the furious chorus, in which Stipe mentions the band’s friend and manager Jefferson Holt in singing “Jefferson, I think we’re lost!” It’s quite similar to “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” yet less anthemic and much more raw. And being that it’s a sort of paean to the road, it ends the album on a strong note.
Reckoning may not be recognized as REM’s breakthrough album or their most finely crafted, the title of which is often lent to Automatic For the People. Reckoning is, however, a fine batch of songs, and a cohesive statement from a band during their early years. It was during this time that the band had their first appearance on Letterman, and afterward Stipe chose not to participate in the interview. Of course, now, he’s much less media shy, but once you become one of the biggest bands in the world, mystique inevitably has to be traded for presence.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.