R.E.M. – Reckoning

Reckoning (1984)


1. Harborcoat 2. 7 Chinese Bros. 3. So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry) 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


Aw, yeah. A conscious attempt to replicate the band’s live sound after the studio-enhanced atmospherics of Murmur, Reckoning ends up being my favorite REM album because we’re left with nothing but the songs and, uh… GUITARS. Few sounds on earth give me as much pleasure as Peter Buck playing rhythm guitar (off the top of my head I can think of that tiny squeaky sound you get when you rub two pickles together, and yes, that was a total SpongeBob reference), so fortunately for me he’s pumped up in the mix and playin’ those vintage jangly riffs like nobody’s business. Thank goodness for that, because we’re pared back down to a basic guitar/bass/drums setup with minimal overdubs – a bit of piano way in the background of a couple songs and an extra guitar or two only when absolutely necessary. This is just plain old rock music, presented as straightforwardly as possible by four guys from the South. If you were ever bothered by feyness or pretension in REM’s music, this is the REM album for you. Stipe is too busy coming up with awesome melodies to be annoying, and Buck is just riffing away like a mofo.

Songs? Stipe had a dream he was looking at the cover of a fictional Stones single called “Pretty Persuasion” so they had to come up with a great, pissed off rocker to live up to such a high calling. They succeeded. They close with the rave-up “Little America,” probably the least fruity rocker they ever did. And they mellow out without getting dickless… “Time After Time” may be Stephen Malkmus’ least favorite song, but the droning guitars build up slowly into something quite stunning, quite beautiful, a sonic triumph at once both epic and intimate. Hear how the instruments sound like they’re really close to you at the beginning of the song and then get really big and echoey later? That’s quality record-making, folks.  “7 Chinese Bros.” is probably the REM song that gets stuck in my head the most – Buck’s relaxed, chiming riff is one of his most memorable, especially when juxtaposed with Berry’s four on the floor drums. He sure liked to play around with that disco beat on these early records like his name was Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger was telling him to because he saw the kids dancing to a beat just like it last night at Studio 54 and thus the path to eternal hipness is clearly “Emotional Rescue.”

This really is one of my favorite guitar albums of all time, since the riffs are so maddeningly catchy… but they’re also so fucking simple! I can play virtually every lick on this album, and they didn’t take too long to learn, either. Like, about 30 seconds a song. You could do it too! See, REM are everymen! Who knew? Why else would they do a country song? That’s “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” predictably my favorite REM song ever due to my redneck genes. It’s basically a solo Mike Mills composition and about the best thing he’s ever contributed to society, the mousy little dork. It’s just about a girl! Who he doesn’t want to skip town and leave him for a depressing go-nowhere life in a factory town! See, Michael Stipe never writes about girls like that. Probably because he’s too busy singing about trains and two-headed cows. Or because, you know, some people inexplicably find hairy dudes more attractive than women. I don’t know what girls and gay men see in us.

But darn it all if this isn’t the ONLY REM album that I can connect with lyrically on a somewhat deeper emotional level. That might sound crazy – Stipe is still well-mired in incomprehensible, vaguely mythical metaphors and grammar-raping sentences. But some key lines keep poking through the fog: “Did you never call/I waited for your call/these rivers of suggestion are driving me away” from the brooding “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry),” which they debuted live on Letterman six months before Reckoning even came out; though it lacks specificity it manages to capture an essential feeling of regret and lost opportunity. “Vacation in Athens is calling me” from “Letter Never Sent”… Michael sings about taking a vacation in his hometown because he’s sick of touring, but I can take the liberty of interpreting it in the context of my inexplicable draw to the faraway South – its music, its geography (“I thought of the catacombs”), its lore. “God damn this confusion” (“Pretty Persuasion”)… “Alone in a crowd” (from “Camera,” written for a dead friend)… this stuff simply works for me.

But, really, it’s all about the riffs. This is REM at their most unfiltered and unfucked with. I suppose you could construe that as meaning they’ve been fucking up ever since… plenty of people do. I may not be one of them, but, truthfully, nothing they tried after this quite measured up.

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