Monday, August 5, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #237 - R.E.M. - Reckoning (1984)

Very few bands have been as persistent and present in my life as R.E.M. have been. Just as my mother smothered me with “Love Me Do” in the car on the way back from my first ski lessons, we would come home to find my dad grilling steaks as Lifes Rich Pageant blared from the Luxman. In my youth, the esoteric cover art and political overtness of albums like Document and Green always felt way over my head, like I wasn’t supposed to know about or listen to it – but it was the 90’s and, thanks to “Losing My Religion,” they were inescapable. The group’s cultish second album, 1984’s Reckoning, was the first album of theirs I bought for myself, and it kick-started my own Rapid-Eyed love affair. Written and recorded immediately after the release of their classic debut, Murmur, the record bears moments of a young band fully actualizing their democratic and unified vision.
The band’s signature urgency is immediately evident as drummer Bill Berry hits rapid fire on his snare to usher in the album’s haunting opener, “Harborcoat.” Like many of the best early R.E.M. songs, “Harborcoat” has an anthemic energy, yet it remains abstract and surreal – almost pagan-like in its search for musical divinity and as primitive as the watercolor snake that adorns the album’s sleeve. As with many of the record’s upbeat numbers, Berry’s agile drumming, the fierce jangle of guitarist Peter Buck, and the angular pulsing of bassist Mike Mills drive and decorate the track. As an opaque and sepia-toned portrait of the horrors of war (and loosely based on The Diary Of Anne Frank), the song serves as an entry point into the beautiful brain and inimitable voice of singer Michael Stipe (with a full head of curly hair, no less!)
While some of his performances retain the same mumbling mysteriousness as Murmur, Stipe has clearly begun to write and sing more directly on Reckoning. This can be noted through the album’s reoccurring themes of deep loss, the Deep South, and water; qualities which are prominent on the record’s first single, “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry),” an autobiographical story where “these rivers of suggestion” force Stipe to end his triad with an otherwise heterosexual couple. He also tackles bereavement on the slow and stunningly sad “Camera,” which takes place at the funeral of another girlfriend who died in a car accident. On the fast and fierce “Pretty Persuasion,” Stipe seems to comment vaguely on capitalism in the verse before uttering one of his most visceral and suggestive choruses: “He’s got a pretty persuasion/She’s got a pretty persuasion/God damn, pure confusion.
Sonically, Reckoning has a more organic quality compared to its predecessor, yet it also contains some tactful and subtle experimentation. At the suggestion of producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, much of the album was recorded binaurally in order to faithfully capture the band’s live sound, allowing each band member to be heard clearly in an accurate stereo image. The brash drone of harmonica in the interlude of “Harborcoat” is the perfect counterpoint to Buck’s brisk guitar arpeggios. “Letter Never Sent” is perhaps the most danceable track on the album, as Berry’s four-on-the-floor drumming accents Stipe’s mumblings of catacombs and homesickness. Most interestingly, on the gorgeous “Time After Time (Annelise),” the band dips its feet into sixties-esque raga-rock and utilizes congas and bongos to give the song an exotic and earthy feel. The Americana-tinged “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” written by Mike Mills as a plea to his girlfriend not to leave town, is one of the most straightforward entries in the band’s early catalog, with a playfulness that is accented by the southern twang in Stipe’s singing and Buck’s serendipitous piano. 
Serving as a key entry point into early alternative music, as opposed to the sleek sounds of new wave or the bubblegum excess of Madonna, Reckoning captures a band that had no idea what they were getting themselves into – no idea that they would eventually sign the largest record contract in history. It’s simply the sound of four college kids from Athens: three who were just as enamored with Wire’s arty post-punk as they were with the classic chime of the Byrds’ Rickenbackers - plus a uniquely enigmatic singer, equal parts Jack Kerouac and Patti Smith, who wrote cryptically of history, heartbreak, sexuality, enlightenment, and death. It’s a trailblazing sound that’s had a distinct influence, inspiring everyone from Kurt Cobain to Thom Yorke to Bradford Cox to create arresting guitar music that was muscular and robust, yet seeped in critical thought and emotional depth.
        Ethan Griggs

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