REM - Reckoning (25 Year Anniversary Edition)
“They crowded up to Lenin with their noses worn off”
Of course they did. REM’s second album is a luminous, and, to some degree, nostalgic, example of the two most defining characteristics of their early, formative years; namely, Michael Stipe’s nigh-on unfathomable lyrics and Peter Buck’s way with an arpeggio and a Rickenbacker that saw hundreds of column inches define themselves by use of the word “Byrdsian”. A generation of fans have spent god knows how many hours trying to decipher just what REM’s singer was trying his hardest to (not) say on those first few albums. Some of us, thrilled by the feeling of disorientation, simply couldn’t be bothered, secure in our feeling that he clearly had something to say … just not that bothered what it might actually be. (That said, there were times, thankfully later crushed by his lyrical ‘coming out’, when I did wonder if Stipe had played us all for desperate fools.) As for Buck’s guitar, well, it was rare treasure back then despite the fact that REM were far from alone in re-imagining the harmonies, riffs and ethics of 60s psychedelia but, bar a personal fondness for Rain Parade’s ‘Emergency Third Rail Power Trip’ (and founder David Roback’s glorious Mazzy Star), the other scenesters of the day hardly register twenty-odd years on. Game Theory, anyone ? The Long Ryders ?
‘Reckoning’, in its commercial endeavours, as much as its artistic achievements, was no lightning bolt for its makers. If anything, despite being slightly less impenetrable than debut ‘Murmur’, and having a warmer musical bedrock (the traditions evident on the chiming ‘Pretty Persuasion’ or the ramshackle honky tonk of ‘’(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville’, as opposed to, say, the alien tempo muddles of the debut’s ‘9-9’), ‘Reckoning’ peaked at no 27 in the USA. It would be several years, and another three albums before the grind and clang of ‘Document’ took them up a level and saw them morph from college heroes to filling arenas and, tellingly, cracking the emerging MTV.
With their eventual megastardom in mind, it’s worth reflecting on how REM’s slow route to mainstream acceptance now genuinely does seem like a route to the top from not just another generation, but another world entirely. Doubtful these days that any band would be indulged for a decade or so before they made good on the investment. By the time they had obliterated Buck’s lush guitars and Stipe’s vagueries in favour of distortion and a more explicitly politicised thrust on fifth album ‘Document’,(‘Finest Worksong’, ‘Welcome to the Occupation’ ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ – song titles said it all), it was clear that independent label IRS, for whom REM were easily their largest concern, could no longer hold them. IRS, who had, ironically, tried to influence the recording of ‘Reckoning’, nudging the band towards a more commercial appeal, announced REM’s defection to Warner Brothers in 1988 (for whom they would go onto to make ‘Green’, thus cementing their place on the stadium circuit) with a press release that said “Everyone around here is really depressed.”
‘Reckoning’ has worn unspeakably well. It points to a back catalogue so spiked with invention and re-invention that I still, to this day, actually see it as one of my least favourite early REM albums despite my ongoing fondness. The bleakness of its follow-up, ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’, recorded during a London winter, was too exhausting for some but it fascinated me with its combination of down-home storytelling and acidic arrangements. ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ saw them open up their sound to thrilling effect; the guitars were louder, the songs starting to verge on athemic, the production far more welcoming. And that’s before we mention the crypto-grunge of ‘Document’ and ‘Green’, and the baroque pop genre-jumping that resulted in ‘Out of Time’ and the redoubtable ‘Automatic for the People’.
But, reservations aside, ‘Reckoning’ is mercurial and beautifully executed nevertheless. ‘Harbourcoart’ marries Buck’s patented neo-McGuinn-isms with choppy, Ska-influenced riffing. ‘7 Chinese Bros’ is a pounding drone but thrillingly so, and enlivened by Buck’s ghostly melody. ‘So Central Rain’ still features in their live set; understandly, for its opening riff almost defines the band’s early years and it’s “I’m sorry” chorus still leaves hairs on end. It is surely ‘Reckoning’’s best loved song. Certainly its opening verse points towards a narrative talent that seems at odds with its authors’s legendary lyrical shyness :”Did you never call ? I waited for your call/These rivers of suggestion are driving me away …”
Beyond that opening hat trick, it rarely flags. ‘Pretty Persuasion’ is, without doubt, ‘Byrdsian’, but with kinetic clout. The dark balladry of ‘Time After Time (AnnElise)’ and ‘Camera’ take us down ghost roads, monochrome settings, lyrical images of the deepest loss, the heaviest regret. On the former, Stipe’s voice is as fully-formed and as close to the listener as it had been by that point.
This 25 year anniversary re-release, I have to say, sounds, to these ears, as it always did. Maybe that’s the result of playing a half-decent vinyl copy on a more than half-decent turntable as opposed to hearing it for the first time on any CD, let alone a remastered one. (On a far from decent CD set-up, I’ll admit.) The addition of a live disc from the period adds context but not a great deal more. By dint of the fact that it’s a full gig, never before released and immaculately recorded, worth having, of course. Completists will thrill to the presence in the set of ‘Hyena’ and ‘Driver 8’, both, at that point, some years from being recorded. It’s the main feature, though, that warrants interest or, for long-term fans, reinvestigation. REM would go on to make music that left ‘Reckoning’ in the blocks, no doubts. Railing against a world gone crazy, ‘Document’ saw them vent spleen with gusto and guile. ‘Automatic for the People’ conquered the globe and deservedly so with elegant arrangements and an emerging pop sensibility. But ‘Reckoning’, a quarter century on, was REM at their boldest, trying to find out just who they were and who they were going to be; trying to make ground in an over-populated scene but desperate to retain their growing identity and character. As an electrifying testament of youth, and a vivid document of creative development to boot, ‘Reckoning’ is beyond doubt.