Friday, July 17, 2009

R.E.M. - Reckoning Deluxe Edition

My feelings about R.E.M. have changed so much over the years. When this reissue showed up on my desk it reminded me of my feelings for them when they first started. At the time they seemed like a huge breath of relief after the angst of punk and the chilling effects of new wave. They were creating rock that felt warm and meaningful, and was in touch with some very basic fundamentals: musicianship, songwriting ability and melodic sensibility. I just adored those first four albums, and I remember seeing them live at increasingly large venues starting with the 200 seat Blue Note in Boulder. By the time they played at the C.U. Events center on Halloween to a sold-out crowd of proto-indie hipsters it seemed like they were destined for greatness. And they were… kind of. Unfortunately, most of their modern albums have left me pretty cold. They can still write hits, and their songs will get in your head and stay there, but they have lost that organic sense of self-discovery that informed their early albums. Going to their shows is an even more alienating experience. They have become, for lack of a better word, huge. I find it harder to embrace immensity than intimacy - who doesn’t?

This Deluxe Edition will take you right back to those heady days in every way. The album itself sounds better than ever. It’s hard to pick a favorite of the first four, but this could be their best batch of songs. Michael Stipe’s willful, arty lyrical obscurity never worked to better effect than on songs like: “So. Central Rain,” "(don’t go back to) Rockville” or “Time After Time.” The deluxe part comes in the form of an entire concert from the era. Disc two is comprised of a 1984 radio broadcast three months after the album was released. The band is firing on all cylinders, and shows no sign of fatigue with the new material. All the songs from Reckoning as well as all the material from their brilliant debut Murmur shine like musical gold. It’s hard to listen to this show and not be swept away on a cloud of nostalgia for this period, when the band’s future seemed so wide open and they seemed to be playing for their lives.

-- Paul Epstein

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