The Simple Genius of R.E.M's Reckoning
The soggy heatwave that was summer of 2013 nearly drove me insane. Suddenly, no one was expecting anything of me, there was nothing I had to accomplish, and my alarm no longer wailed at 6:00 a.m. Monday through Friday. It was much like being all dressed up and having nowhere to go, if sneakers can be considered formal attire. This incredible boredom left me with only one thing to do- one thing I hadn't yet realized was so rewarding: Discover good music. My father's CD collection has always been available to me, and it was high time I expanded my horizons. It took a lot of time and patience, but what resulted was a renewed love of '80's college rock. Amongst the likes of Hounds Of Love by Kate Bush and The Replacement's Pleased to Meet Me, I was greeted by a strange little record called Reckoning.
If one were going to introduce another to the wonderful world of '80's college radio, this album would perhaps be the perfect place to start. Released almost exactly a year after their debut, R.E.M.'s Reckoning is one of many reasons why 1984 is often considered the year alternative music caught fire- in a good way, of course. While most of the bands representing this genre never gained much popularity due to a lack of mainstream appeal, they got plenty of attention from listeners of the more obscure college radio stations. It would likely have been rather difficult for R.E.M., a band already popular on this island of misfit toys and beyond, to disappoint such a dedicated following with Reckoning.
Before my endeavors with Reckoning, I was barely familiar with any of its songs and, oddly enough, entirely unaware of its importance. This happened to be a most fortunate circumstance. Hearing this record for the first time was much like climbing a mountain with a blindfold (hear me out, I promise this makes sense); I had no idea where I was headed nor did I know why, but once I reached the summit, I was able to examine the view with care and interest until the trek became something very worthwhile.
Don't get me wrong; Reckoning has its obvious shortcomings. The prominent, hooky jangle that was R.E.M.'s early sound is equally charming and redundant (with the exception of a few dreamy sounding numbers such as “Time After Time” and “Camera”). One's first listen makes for an enjoyable yet almost indistinguishable experience, like an active blender full of jaunty guitar riffs. Those only familiar with R.E.M.'s later, more popular songs (like “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts”) are bound to be not necessarily disappointed, but confused. Michael Stipe's signature vocals are virtually the only similarity between Reckoning and the late 80's to 90's singles that took them from being a well-known band to existing as one of the most popular in the world. Consequently, R.E.M. remains one of the most frustrating bands to the eager-to-be-devoted fan who is looking to appreciate everything they recorded, as their catalogue varies tremendously.
Fortunately, what Reckoning lacks in individual distinctness, it makes up for in pure pop sensibility. Some of the less obscure songs on this album such as “Harborcoat” and “So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)” best demonstrate the keen songwriting and simple genius of early R.E.M. Very few bands have ever been capable of distributing an equal amount of creative control amongst its members, and R.E.M. was. Their early career was based on a principle of fairness that is most evident on Reckoning, with its obvious focus on overall musical quality. Due to an initial precise attention to detail in musicianship and vocals, production on this record was done with grace and minimalism, a stark contrast to the thick layer of polish added to most popular music of the time. In fact, I find that to be the single most magical aspect of Reckoning- its ability to make such a bold statement about the hollowness of excess by presenting something non confrontational, unpretentious, and clever. The fact that it doesn't give the devoted fan much to latch onto in contrast to their later albums truly says more about the inconsistency of their work after 1984's Reckoning than it does about the record itself. In all its honest quality, even the otherwise inexcusable flaws lead you to believe they were intentional.
Whether you're interested in delving into the world of 80's alternative music or simply looking for something decent to listen to, Reckoning is an infallible choice. Though I found it difficult not to appreciate, everyone is different. I'll leave you to arrive at a personal verdict. However, one thing is for absolutely certain: “So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)” will never really leave your head.