R.E.M. - Reckoning (1984, I.R.S.)
All Time Album Series
I think most R.E.M fans love other albums more than they love ‘Reckoning’ (Murmur, Green, Life’s Rich Pageant). But not me.
For me, Reckoning was and still is the album.
I still listen to it almost every month at some point.
‘Reckoning’ came out my senior year at high school (the only year that I was every popular in school.
I was unpopular in elementary school, junior high, and the three prior years of high school).
1984 was the year when the rest of the school decided alternative music was good and since I was the area expert.
Boom! Instant popularity.
I was kind of like the kid in the teen movie who pulls off some trick to suddenly get their chance with the in crowd. Except that the trick I pulled was simply being in the right space at the right time, not exactly tricky.
One of the hottest "new" bands around this time was R.E.M. whose album Murmur (1983) had a popular single “Radio Free Europe” that was making the rounds.
Everyone was starting to buzz about their home scene in Athens, GA. They were getting some MTV attention and I was hearing and seeing them in my music crowd.
My friends and I found out that R.E.M was going to be coming to Dallas in support of their new album ‘Reckoning’ (which I immediately purchased with my Mazio’s Pizza money - oh yes, I worked at Mazio’s Pizza #1 in Tulsa).
I was not sure yet that I loved R.E.M. but I liked them.
They were very different, and had a different fusion of pop construction and alternative/indie sounds and imagery. They sounded like they had reversed the traditional process of band development. As if they had left a million dollar studio to find the garage.
I immediately agreed to go with this crew to Dalllas to see R.E.M. I procured parental permission (not easy), I paid for the tickets, and I was ready to go.
- And then -
Just as the week we were supposed to leave hit, believe it or not, I came down with Scarlet Fever.
Scarlet Fever, the Shower, and R.E.M.
I wish I was making this up. But, I actually got Scarlet Fever.
I still to this day have no idea how one even gets Scarlet Fever.
For those not familiar, basically, when you have Scarlet Fever, your whole body is one big and terribly itchy rash.
It is so debilitating that all you feel capable of is itching and sleeping.
It is kind of like if one of the rashes in those horror movies was literally covering your entire body.
Anyway, there are only three things I remember from having Scarlet Fever:
* Being itchy, uncomfortable, and terrified
* The Shower
* R.E.M. Reckoning
Being Itchy, Uncomfortable, and Terrified
Scarlet fever is pretty awful.
You could not really be much more uncomfortable, you itch a ton but are not supposed to scratch (which is crazy..like trying not to breathe), and it is terrifying because it is so all encompassing (intellectually, emotionally, and visually). Y
ou kind of feel like it has to be potentially fatal because you are so totally encumbered with it. There are very few silver linings.
That Amazing Shower
It turns out that when you have Scarlet Fever the only relief you can get is to take a shower.
For whatever reason, all the suffering melts away and turns into almost unbelievable happiness in the shower. Sadly, the feeling doesn’t last forever, otherwise I might never have left that shower.
It is not a sexual pleasure...it just feels like every pore of your skin is doing a happy dance on top of a gumdrop.
I am not sure many things have ever felt as good as getting in the shower with Scarlet Fever.
Reckoning In Relief
Since I could not move much, most of what I did during recovery is lie in bed and play Reckoning on repeat. I was sold from the first song.
At this point in their career R.E.M like Pavement were able to string together word soup that somehow made good emotional if not logical sense.
I was not always 100% sure I understood (especially in my feverish state) but I knew that I felt what they were singing.
Perhaps the most important thing about this album is how emotionally I felt the music.
There is nothing special about the structures or the chords, but if you close your eyes and open yourself, this is just a really powerfully affecting album about loss and decay and joy and places and spaces that matter even when they disappear from our memories.
To put it in a comical way, if you saw Pixar's movie "Inside Out," this album is about losing most of your "Bing Bongs."
It’s about the pain of places that do not work anymore and people you remember fondly but with regret. It is about things you love that fade.
It is about the costs of personal progress.
And, like on the cover art, it is about snakes that eat each other.
That first song, "Harborcoat," is a catchy little stomp of a good time with lots of nice lyrical moments (“there’s a splinter in your eye and it reads react” etc.) but it’s real strength is the chorus hook.
Stipe’s voice sounds open and vast.
If you close your eyes it sounds like feeling a summer breeze on a porch rocking chair enjoying a cool cup of iced tea.
"Seven Chinese Brothers" uses the piano as a counterpoint to the melody in a particularly percussive manner that is really impactful.
And of course, most of us grew up having parents read the story of the seven brothers, so it felt nostalgic and playful.
There is also a really nice bridge at the end. The detail and craftsmanship of the songwriting really shows on this song.
Listening to it now, I think it sounds like one of those model ships someone is trying to build - incredible fragile detail - the song is beautiful but in the way where a strong wind could blow it down.
"So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)" has another killer chorus of Stipe apologizing over a full bar.
The song seems to be about doing something that is good for you but effects someone else poorly.
I think Stipe is saying, “sorry I have to do this but I have to do this and you can choose not to be affected negatively.”
In an odd way, it builds like a sad song but also incorporates the hidden feeling of the small joy of acting on your own behalf against someones wish.
It is not a pure sorry, it is a ‘sorry, but.”
"Pretty Persuasion" I love because of the drums but it starts with a nice 12 string guitar.
30 years later I still hear the chorus in my head:
”He’s got..pretty persuasion...she’s got pretty persuasion...god damn pure confusion...she’s got..pretty persuuuuuaassion.”
Really great bridge on this one too. Any song you still hum from time to time 30 years after it came out is memorable.
"Time After Time (annAlise)" is just a beautiful song in every way.
It is a heart-breaker, but more in the emotional impact of the song.
Like you feel opened to something powerful and personal when you listen to it.
The other song bridges I have talked about on this album are clever, this one is powerful.
It is a song that feels like an open nerve but more like someone letting you see inside their secret world (nerve) for just a few seconds. Painful and but beautiful.
"Second Guessing" plays up the fun and is catchy and fun, you can see yourself clapping along to this one in a concert setting.
I don’t feel that there is anything overly profound about this one. But, every album needs its palette cleansers.
"Letter Never Sent" has an easy intensity (if that is possible) and kind of foregrounds and counterpoints Camera. There are similarities in the notes and message….but, where this one is wistful about the person left behind camera is devastating.
and now, "Camera"
This is the song that I always remember most from Reckoning.
This song has to be about a particular person and a particular place for Stipe but whoever/wherever it was woowowowow they must have left a hole:
”When the party lulls, if we fall by the side, I still like you, can you remember...Alone in a crowd, a battered lantern borrowed, if I’m to be your camera, then who will be your face.”
It is not just the lyrics, the music is just stunning.
Poetry and music are at their most spectacular when you can only guess at the exact details of the story and the story still affects you emotionally.
I get the basic idea, but this song seems to be about a serious unrequited or betrayed love. But whatever it is about, It kills me every time. I wish I could write one thing as beautiful and impactful emotionally as ‘Camera’ is to me.
"(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville" always makes me think of seasonal laborers in places like those cities that grow around some new industry - like the Fracking cities - You go just to a place where nobody says hello and work and drink and nothing good happens.
A good cautionary tale.
"Little America" is a great way to close the album out, just pure fun.
I have literally no idea what it is about except maybe about how people and spaces in America become discarded and forgotten despite our best efforts.
This sounds depressing, but the song is very upbeat, perhaps to show that their is value in remembering and preserving?
There are very few albums that I listen to straight through multiple times these days.
Part of this is because most artists know that the format has no economic value to them, singles and not albums matter, albums have become kind of a nod to tradition.
If you want to hear an album that has impact all the way through and seems to form an emotional and musical coherent arc.
Reckoning is a great example.
It is also pretty great when you are stuck in bed with Scarlet Fever.
In fairness, over decades I have found Stipe to be mystifying and kind of boorish. In small doses and in particular moments he can be really interesting.
He also is one of the best ever at wringing and conveying emotion through his singing. The band at this point was really powerful and emotionally open in their writing and playing as well.
I mean as annoying as he can be, can you listen to "Everbody Hurts" without feeling something?
Sure it is an over the top melodramatic song..but he really makes it affecting.
At this point, he had not become as self-impressed with his own wisdom and lyrical genius as he seemed later in life.
Anyway, I love Reckoning because the whole album makes me feel deeply….And just like with most emotion, there is not always a logic to it but its power is undeniable.
What do you think of Reckoning or of R.E.M? I would love to hear your opinion, leave a comment!