American Graffiti’s review of R.E.M.’s classic sophomore effort “Reckoning”
By Carter Bagley
R.E.M. were must’ve been extremely busy in the mid-80’s because they released 5 albums in a 5 year span and toured extensively. It was a group of young rock stars arguably at their creative peak churning out indie classic after indie classic. Their second album “Reckoning” was absolutely no exception. Wielding a recognizably different sound than their first effort, you could tell the band was willing to change things up on each album and through their thirty year career they did exactly that. “Reckoning” starts with a bang in the form of the extremely 80’s sounding “Harborcoat”. This is a running theme in this album as it sounds like R.E.M.’s take on the 80’s pop sound that was so big at the time. Since the band is a very unique one with a unique writing style, they took the guitar style from the time and applied it to the sound they established with “Murmur”. Needless to say it was a success. “Harborcoat” has amazing lyrics that you can make sense of after a few listens and the instrumentation is as catchy as ever. A great way to begin an album. The next few songs are no different and they’re all amazing, the entire Side 1 is basically perfect actually. “7 Chinese Bros.” is a classic example of R.E.M. lyrics being very random but for whatever reason they grow on you. In fact it’s really a fantastic song and one of my favorites on the album. The third song “So. Central Rain” is when this album really takes on a new level. Stipe sings confessional lyrics into the mic with a great vocal performance and the instrumentation has a perfect relaxed sound to them. It’s maybe one of the band’s best songs in their entire catalog. “Pretty Persuasion” is the point in the album when you ask yourself, “could this album get any better?” Because at this point song after song just blows you away. This is a band that knew exactly how they would follow up their groundbreaking debut and completely abandoned the cliche of the “sophomore slump”. “Pretty Persuasion” is just another example of how good R.E.M. could be at making pop music if they desired to. Track 5 “Time After Time (Annelise)” isn’t as solid as the first four but in my opinion it’s still fantastic and a very underrated song by them. The vocal performance by Michael Stipe is more reserved than others on the album and the lyrics may be some of my favorite on the whole record. The instrumentation also elevates this song above what it could’ve been and really comes to play at certain moments in the song. “Second Guessing” sounds a lot like a song that could’ve been on “Murmur” which isn’t a bad thing in the slightest. It’s fun and poppy with decent lyrics but it’s mostly just here to counteract the slowness of the previous track. “Letter Never Sent” is next and I must admit this is a song I forget about quite a bit. It’s very well performed though as Peter Buck’s lead guitar is very snappy and Michael Stipe sings really subdued and the backing vocals in the song are much more present than others as they’re almost the best part of it. Overall it’s definitely one of the underrated songs on the record, it’s just hard the songs opposite this one are as good as they are. Track 8 “Camera” is another one that’s not as good as the rest, but it’s definitely not one to skip. It’s just a fairly good song on a near perfect album. The song that follows is another absolute album highlight and that song is the amazing “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”. It has a very different tone and style to it with more of an upbeat southern country rock sound to it. The lyrics are well written and Michael Stipe delivers a great vocal performance. The song is endlessly cheery, poppy and addictive. The album ends with the great concluding song “Little America”. It’s shorter than most of the other songs but it’s really fascinating and sounds more like “Life’s Rich Pageant” R.E.M. than the rest of “Reckoning”. This album could’ve failed in many ways as it had big shoes to fill after the brilliance that was “Murmur”. It manages to be different and more c0llected than its predecessor all while still being similar enough to the sound we fell in love with. It’s really such a nicely composed lovely achievement in alternative pop rock music. and Years later I think this one is definitely amongst the most overlooked in their discography which is a shame because it’s such an amazing record. Although R.E.M. fans and music fans in general will always hold “Reckoning” in their hearts as one of the greatest pop albums of the 80’s.
Highlights: Harborcoat, 7 Chinese Bros., So. Central Rain, Pretty Persuasion, Time After Time (Annelise), (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville
Lowlights Lesser Highlights: Second Guessing, Letter Never Sent, Camera