Review Summary: Reckoning is a rock-solid and consistent collection of indie rock songs that tentatively advances the band's sound.
By 1984, R.E.M. had no real reason to change things up dramatically, and Reckoning
reflects that. Heavily populated by tracks dating to the early songwriting sessions that birthed Murmur, the record tastefully expands the band’s sound with similarly strong results. This is another consistent set of well-performed poppy indie rock tracks that provides indications of where the band would go in the future.
While the group’s real “transition” records were still to come, there are hints of the more cerebral songwriting that would becoming a defining characteristic on songs like the organ-heavy “Camera”. The lyrics are also more audible and evocative than on the predecessor (albeit no more elucidating), with refrains like “She’s got/A pretty persuasion” and “I’m sorry!” resonating despite – or because of – their simplicity. Reckoning may not hit the sublime heights of certain moments on Murmur
, but the songs themselves are stronger from front to back. Whereas many of the verses on that record functioned primarily as leadups to huge choruses, Stipe’s melodies are incredibly strong throughout and Mills (as always the melodic heart of the band) is given a greater role. “So. Central Rain” and “Harborcoat” especially are classics, immediately memorable and airtight, while “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” dips endearingly into the Southern rock sound that would re-emerge periodically throughout the band’s catalogue with a catchy harmonized chorus. Even the more by-the-numbers house-party-ready songs like “Pretty Persuasion” and “Second Guessing” are as effective as they are straightforward; R.E.M. had perfected the jangle-pop formula so well that it’s no wonder they went to such lengths to deviate from it on their next record. Contrary to what a young Stephen Malkmus might have thought, the best song on the record might be “Time After Time,” easily Stipe’s strongest vocal performance with a simple but beautiful chorus perfectly cushioned by Buck’s gentle arpeggios.
is a follow-up record through and through, just as (if not more) consistent as Murmur
with a broader stylistic palette and slightly lower highs. Fortunately, both are excellent indie rock records – you really can’t go wrong with this era of R.E.M.. It does mark the end of the simplest time in the band’s career, when entertaining drunk college kids in crummy clubs was more of a priority than documenting the contradictions and lore of the American South or drawing attention to imperialism in Central America. While those topics might be more intellectually stimulating than the haze of relationships and obscure imagery evoked here (your mileage may vary), these songs are undeniable and sound as timeless now as they did thirty-five years ago.