Once upon a time R.E.M. was pretty damn cool. It held the American underground and a generation of moody college students in the palm of its hand. It was a band of ne’er-do-wrong hipsters virtually writing the book on post-punk songwriting. The band knew everyone, and everyone knew it. It was 1984, and everything was just swell.
That was more than 20 years ago. It was before R.E.M. was a household name your parents knew; before stadium shows around the world were its M.O.; before Michael Stipe went glam. Back in the mid-’80s, R.E.M. had its finger on the pulse of the underground music scene, jangling through dingy bars in college towns throughout the country.
Pop music is a very broad term, but at its core lies simple hooks and endearing lyrics and melodies. R.E.M.’s breed of pop songwriting is a mix of super-bright guitars, simple verse-chorus-verse structures, driving rhythms and disarmingly simple aesthetics borrowed from New York City punk. A mumbling, enigmatic singer — whose lyrics, once deciphered, sound like a T.S. Eliot poem — rounds out the formula.
On paper, it doesn’t sound like much — and the best part is that it’s really not — but R.E.M.’s masterful execution and effortless channeling of disparate moods and ideas makes for a sound far greater than the sum of its parts.
Reckoning documents the band in the midst of an explosion of creativity and confidence. R.E.M. had stumbled upon a winning formula with their 1983 debut Murmur and ran with it. Containing the best collection of pop songs on any one R.E.M. release, 25 years later Reckoning still hits hard.
The first side of the album contains one perfect cut after another; the run of “Harborcoat” to “7 Chinese Brothers” to “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” to “Pretty Persuasion” is nearly unbeatable. Each track is so consistently compelling, packing a deceptive dose of melodic catharsis in just under four minutes.
The moodiness surrounding even the brightest-sounding songs is all Stipe, though. His lyrics pack highly imagistic and angst-ridden scenes of isolation and conflict that completely counter the lucid tone set by the rest of the band. All together, though, it’s neither too bright nor too dark, making it an ideal template for a new generation of pop literati.
It’s here that Stipe’s growth as a lyricist is evident, too. Lines like “These rivers of suggestion / Are driving me away” and “There’s a splinter in your eye / And it reads react” are still pretty cryptic, but they definitely ring with more tangible emotion than the kind found in Murmur.
The arrangements on Reckoning, as with nearly all R.E.M. recordings in the ’80s, are kept pretty spare — often there is nothing more than vocals, a guitar or two, drums, bass, the occasional piano or mandolin and some percussion here or there. The musical texture of the band rests squarely in Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker guitar, which echoes everything from The Byrds to Big Star to Gang of Four — all of whom he has cited as among the band’s primary influences.
Apart from the songwriting, it’s the goofy nods and youthful segues — the funky hidden track between “Camera” and “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” is more akin to their contemporaries The Replacements — that push Reckoning above the rest of the band’s catalogue. I’d like to think Stipe’s spelling of “r-e-a-c-t” in the last verse of “Harborcoat” is an homage to Patti Smith (via “Gloria”) — he was, after all, a huge fan of her Horses.
Reckoning makes it easy to forget how hard it is to make lasting pop songs that aren’t pinned down by sappy lyrics or overproduction. The genius of R.E.M. comes from taking a bright hook, be it instrumental or vocal, and winding it through darkly emotive lyrics and haunting melodies. Reckoning shows a legendary band in its prime, and if it’s not enough to make you a believer, goddamn your confusion.