ON THIS DATE (28 YEARS AGO)
April 9, 1984- R.E.M. Reckoning is released.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 4.5/5
# allmusic 5/5
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Reckoning is the second album by R.E.M., released on this date in 1984 by I.R.S. Records. Released to critical acclaim, it reached number 27 in the United States—where it was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in 1991—and peaked at number 91 in the United Kingdom.
Produced by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, the album was recorded at Reflection Sound Studio in Charlotte, North Carolina over 16 days in December 1983 and January 1984. Dixon and Easter intended to capture the sound of R.E.M.'s live performances, and used binaural recording on several tracks. Singer Michael Stipe dealt with darker subject matter in his lyrics, and water imagery is a recurring theme on the record.
After its debut album Murmur (1983) received critical acclaim, R.E.M. quickly began work on its second album. The group wrote new material prodigiously; guitarist Peter Buck recalled, "We were going through this streak where we were writing two good songs a week [...] We just wanted to do it; whenever we had a new batch of songs, it was time to record".
Due to the number of new songs the group had, Buck unsuccessfully tried to convince everyone to make the next album a double record. In November 1983, the band recorded 22 songs during a session with Neil Young producer Elliot Mazer in San Francisco. While Mazer was briefly considered as a candidate to produce the band's next album, R.E.M. ultimately decided to team up again with Murmur producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon.
R.E.M. started recording Reckoning at Reflection Sound in Charlotte, North Carolina, on December 8, 1983. The group recorded over two eight-day stretches around Christmas 1983, separated by two weeks of canceled studio time that allowed the band to play a show in Greensboro, North Carolina, go out to see a movie, and shoot a video in the studio. While the studio diary listed 16 days for recording, the album sleeve later claimed the album was recorded in 14 days, while in interviews Buck at times commented that the album was recorded in 11 days. The producers both disputed that the sessions were that short; Dixon insisted that they were at the studio for at least 25 days (during which he worked eighteen-hour days), while Easter said, "When I read 'eleven days' I thought, what the fuck! It was twenty days, which was still short, but it's not eleven."
ORIGINAL ROLLING STONE REVIEW
Murky yet emotionally winning, brainy but boyishly enthusiastic, R.E.M.'s debut album, Murmur, burst onto the pop scene last year with minimal fanfare. Though some critics lumped the Athens, Georgia, quartet with the big-guitar bunch (the Alarm, Big Country), R.E.M.'s approach was more delicate and pastoral. Their sound was a curious fusion of vocalist Michael Stipe's bookish, still-wet-behind-the-ears pretension and guitarist Peter Buck's cheerful folky energy. The tunes aside, there was something positively seditious in a song like "Laughing," where an engagingly bright acoustic guitar arpeggio accompanied a lyric like "Laocoon ... martyred, misconstrued." Stipe's words may largely have been indecipherable, but Murmur was consistently intriguing. In short, the best LP of 1983.
On Reckoning, R.E.M. has opted for a more direct approach. The overall sound is crisper, the lyrics far more comprehensible. And while the album may not mark any major strides forward for the band, R.E.M.'s considerable strengths — Buck's ceaselessly inventive strumming, Mike Mills' exceptional bass playing and Stipe's evocatively gloomy baritone — remain unchanged.
If Murmur showed Buck to be a master of wide-eyed reverie, Reckoning finds him exploring a variety of guitar styles and moods, from furious upstrumming to wistful finger-picking. "Letter Never Sent" displays Buck at his sunniest, whirling off twelve-string licks with hoedown fervor, from a lock-step part in the verse that recalls early Talking Heads, to a cascading, Byrds-like riff in the chorus. Buck proves to be an equally infectious keyboard player; his echoey chords slide easily underneath Stipe's cry of "sorry" on the album's single, "So. Central Rain." And on "7 Chinese Brothers," Buck does it all: curt, distorted background chords, icy piano notes, warm chordal plucking and high-string riffs that drone as Stipe sketches, in a mournful hum, the fairy-tale story of a boy who swallowed the ocean. Yet, for all that aural activity, the song flows with elegiac grace.
Stipe, whose voice is usually mixed way back, comes up front for "Camera," an enigmatic account of failed love that's enhanced by an eerie single-string solo from Buck. While less powerful than Murmur's "Perfect Circle," this ballad demonstrates a surprising degree of emotional depth in Stipe's singing. On "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville," a more traditionally structured country rocker, Stipe stretches himself even further, singing in an exaggerated, down-home twang.
There's an off-the-cuff feel to much of Reckoning — even some of the band's jams and coproducer Mitch Easter's exhortations are preserved on side two. Unfortunately, improvisational songwriting has its pitfalls. The group, for example, could benefit from a tougher drum sound. Bill Berry shows a deft touch on the cymbals in the peppy "Harborcoat," but the martial beats of "Time after Time (Annelise)" are about as threatening as the Grenadian army. Stipe's amelodic singing also poses problems at times. While the band tends to use his voice as an instrument, his vocalizing in such songs as "Second Guessing" and "Little America" seems out of place, unsatisfying.
As a lyricist, Stipe has developed considerably over the past year. In "So. Central Rain," he notes, intriguingly, that "rivers of suggestion are driving me away." Yet he still waxes pedestrian on occasion, as in "Pretty Persuasion," which finds him griping, "Goddamn your confusion." His erratic meanderings may give the band some hip cachet, but they are an impediment that will prevent R.E.M. from transcending cult status. With skill and daring like theirs, the tiniest commercial concessions — some accessible lyrics from Stipe and a major-league drum sound — could win this band a massive audience.
Even without those changes, however, R.E.M.'s music is able to involve the listener on both an emotional and intellectual level. Not many records can do that from start to finish. "Jefferson, I think we're lost," cries Stipe at Reckoning's end, but I doubt it. These guys seem to know exactly where they're going, and following them should be fun.
~ Christopher Connelly
All songs written by Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe except where noted.
Side one – Left
"Harborcoat" – 3:54
"7 Chinese Bros." – 4:18
"So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" – 3:15
"Pretty Persuasion" – 3:50
"Time After Time (AnnElise)" – 3:31
Side two – Right
"Second Guessing" – 2:51
"Letter Never Sent" – 2:59
"Camera" – 5:52
"(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" – 4:32
"Little America" – 2:58
1992 I.R.S. Vintage Years reissue bonus tracks
"Wind Out" (With Friends) – 1:58
"Pretty Persuasion" (live in studio) – 4:01
"White Tornado" (live in studio) – 1:51
"Tighten Up" (Archie Bell and Billy Butler; cover of Archie Bell & the Drells, 1968) – 4:08
"Moon River" (Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer; cover of Audrey Hepburn, 1961) – 2:21
2009 Deluxe Edition bonus disc (Live at the Aragon Ballroom)
"Femme Fatale" (Lou Reed; cover of The Velvet Underground, 1967) – 3:19
"Radio Free Europe" – 3:54
"Gardening at Night" – 3:38
"9–9" – 2:48
"Windout" – 2:13
"Letter Never Sent" – 3:03
"Sitting Still" – 3:13
"Driver 8" – 3:28
"So. Central Rain" – 3:23
"7 Chinese Bros." – 4:27
"Harborcoat" – 4:34
"Hyena" – 3:26
"Pretty Persuasion" – 3:49
"Little America" – 3:23
"Second Guessing" – 3:07
"(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" – 4:30