Reckoning – R.E.M.

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In recognition of its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2009, Universal is releasing this two-disc Deluxe Edition of R.E.M.’s 1984 classic, Reckoning. It’s interesting, now, to note how popular music at that time was emerging from the first wave of the punk/new music infusion, when it was just beginning to find its visual self, and when MTV set the tone for much of the future of commercial pop.

R.E.M. existed, almost from their inception, as a band on the edge of both worlds (commercial and non-commercial, in the simplest terms). They earned instant respect from people looking to the underground to satisfy a need for something smart and jangly; and they also captured the imaginations of people in college radio promotions who were looking for something fresh as the means to an end of their own. Following the release of the Chronic Town EP and the debut album, Murmur, R.E.M. landed squarely in the middle of the student-driven, independent college radio scene.

Reckoning became an immediate point of reference for the 80s jangle-rock, post-new wave revolution, but it also made the charts in the US. It was as if R.E.M. was the pure, uncorrupted embodiment of that brief period of jangly rock poetics, right before it was all co-opted and devoured by the mainstream like everything else in our culture. R.E.M. gave us a new kind of rock, artsy and pretentious, and also self- deconstructed and brilliant.

Listening to Reckoning in ‘09 is an out-of-body experience. R.E.M. sounded like no other band on earth, and that “sound” is still there, but the years have dumbed it down. It feels like a super-soft, comfortable old sweatshirt that’s become threadbare and frayed around the collar. The trebly, post-Byrdsian web of Peter Buck’s guitar figures operate perfectly as a framing device for Michael Stipe’s warbled, half-muttered vocals, sharing the same kind of symbiosis as Marr and Morrissey, or Richards and Jagger.

Of course, the mind-blowing effect of having never heard anyone mumble quite like that, or anyone play guitar quite like that, is long gone from us now. The R.E.M. sound is there, but the spontaneity of that moment is lost. Nevertheless, from the very first strains of the opener, “Harborcoat,” it’s like a mist has settled over the land and everything appears through a gauzy guitar haze. Stipe’s vocals phase in and out of the mix, as he ebbs and flows with the mood of the song or lyric, or just the effect of where he stands relative to the microphone, mostly mumbling and slurring words like some half-drunk, half-sarcastic, half-singer in a roadside dive somewhere on the back roads near Ringgold, GA.

“7 Chinese Brothers” lays down a serious minor key melodic turn, all within the apparently silly chorus, (“Seven Chinese brothers swallowing the ocean…”), but one can’t easily dismiss it out of hand. Nearly all of their early songs demanded you lean in and listen more closely for whatever subliminal goings-on were lurking down below. This album teases even more than their debut. The reverberated, brandy-snifter heartbreak of the chorus on “South Central Rain” is still there too, (“I’m sooooorry…”), as is the aching monotone of “Time After Time” (not the Cyndi Lauper song).

Sliding right back into a relationship with these songs is easy as pie, and the album holds up well as a musical statement a quarter century later. Though the songs don’t feel as dated as one might think, they do feel like they were of their time, and there is an emptiness pervading the room when it’s all over. That’s inevitable after 25 years.

In the end, maybe the Stipe-mutterings we spent a lot of days trying to figure out was just tenth-grade poetry, but either way, this band of millionaire rockstars from Athens, GA. remains an enigma, wrapped in a conundrum, wrapped in a ratty woolen blanket. The bonus disc in this package is a previously unreleased live show at the Aragon Ballroom from 1984, featuring sixteen songs, including some rare live tracks like “Femme Fatale” and “Gardening at Night.”