Reckoning - R.E.M. Album Review
It's 1984. An actor is in the White House (trying to be President) and the future Governor of California is starring in the year's hit movie (trying to be an actor). Prince is putting the finishing touches to Purple Rain at his Paisley Park studios and everyone in the world is now in possession of at least two copies of Thriller. On the west coast of America, a small army of geeks are preparing to take over the world equipped only with something called the internet whilst, on the opposite coast, US indie pioneers REM are releasing their second album, Reckoning.
An alarmingly swift quarter of a century later and Universal are re-releasing the (predictably) remastered album as a 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, along with a companion live recording made at the Aragon Ballroom on Chicago on 7 July 1984, which is released for the first time.
Like REM's first record, Murmur, Reckoning was critically acclaimed yet only a moderate commercial success, albeit an impressive one for a college band on an indie label (IRS). Nonetheless, the re-issue of Reckoning book-ends a phenomenally successful 25 years for the group, as first Out of Time and then Automatic for the People attracted global acclaim with combined sales approaching 25 million copies. All of which must be very nice.
Of course, rock fable tells us that success on such a scale can be hard to manage and even harder to follow. As hit followed hit, the band spewed out instant classics for an avaricious audience which, again, is a nice enough trick if you can pull it off. At a time when getting your video played on music television virtually assured commercial success, REM's charms were getting MTV very hot under the collar, with the promo for Losing My Religion seemingly on permanent rotation. It is probably playing somewhere this very moment.
Such stratospheric success casts long shadows and it can be (and probably is) argued that the group had passed their creative peak. A fawning public and a gluttonous advertising industry had seized on both Out of Time and Automatic for the People assuring hitherto unimaginable success, yes, but at the same time granting those records lives of their own which arguably outgrew the band itself.
After the banquet, the clamour inevitably subsided and pulses slowed. MTV took a cold shower and went for a lie down. In short, REM - still loved by their 'true fans' (whatever that means) - were at risk of losing more than their religion. So far, so yawn. Except.
Except, to many, both Murmur and Reckoning still evoke the true sound and sense of REM. It was a time when the band would get into skirmishes with producers and engineers as they fought to avoid rock and pop formula; remaining loyal to the band's distinctive sounds, marrying Stipe's trademark vocal with Buck's chiming guitar riffs. Thanks largely to this stubbornness and the resulting creative triumph, Reckoning still sounds fantastic two-and-a-half decades later.
Like so many of the best albums, this record is relatively short; clocking in at just 10 tracks and little more than 35 minutes. But there's no sacrifice in quality. From the opener, Harborcoat, through 7 Chinese Bros and the quite excellent So. Central Rain, this is a declaration of intent and, as so often, unmistakably REM.
Stipe, Mills, Buck and Berry were writing songs at a prolific rate and, it has been claimed, recorded the album in just two weeks; yet there is no hint of dilution of quality. Tracks such as Time After Time (Annelise) and (Don't Go Back to) Rockville demonstrating not just the band's love of bracketed song titles, but their mastery of the musician's art; the bluegrass influences of Rockville sitting with wonderful incongruity alongside the genteel and beguiling Camera.
The live CD is, well a live CD. Much of Reckoning is included amongst the 17 tracks as is Radio Free Europe and other early standards including a smattering from the debut record, Murmur. All are skilfully and stylishly delivered and REM aficionados will no doubt lap it up (and so they should) but the studio album, in all its defiant, ethereal simplicity, is the main course.
Now that the dust has settled on the Grammy awards and MTV has put its trousers back on, Reckoning re-emerges as a wonderful and timely reminder of both REM's original sound and just how great they can be.
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