Between the release of Out of Time in 1991, and Automatic for the People the following year, I embarked on an unwavering quest to make up for lost time and buy the complete R.E.M. back catalogue. During that time, everything I read about the band seemed to agree on one thing: Reckoning was the one album I absolutely had to get, absolutely had to hear. It was, in the words of at least one writer, their tour de force.
A couple of the tracks on the album - So. Central Rain and ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville’ - I already knew from the greatest hits-ish collection Eponymous. The first of these was as beautiful as anything they would ever create. The other, well let’s just say I was hoping Reckoning was more Rain than Rockville.
I wasn’t disappointed. From the opening bars of Harborcoat, it’s clear that Reckoning is at least the equal of its predecessor. It’s not so much Murmur Part 2 as Murmur Mark 2: although Stipe is still on his default mumble/ramble setting, he’s still obscure, just in a slightly clearer way sonically; everything sounds like it’s had a subtle tweak or upgrade somewhere; Reckoning sounds like the encapsulation of the R.E.M. vision.
The whole album is, frankly, wonderful. From Harborcoat right through to Little America, and everything in between there’s a steady - definitely not spectacular - sense of purpose. Even Rockville is elevated among such company. Reckoning is a product of a band that, by setting out to eliminate everything it doesn’t want to do, and do only what remains, contrives to create through negation what so many other bands try, yet fail, to build from the ground up. It’s the sound of a band all pulling together, who somehow manage to create pure and simple melodies and tunes while retaining the mystery, the enigma, the feeling that there’s more going on here than just straightforward three or four minute pop songs.
Much of that must come down to the response to Michael Stipe’s vocals. Unlike, say, The Smiths, with whom comparisons were often made, you won’t find many fans comparing Stipe to Morrissey. Where Morrissey was reluctant to be drawn into discussion of his lyrics, Stipe shut down that line by writing and delivering in a way that held the listener off from the start. Even when he was plaintive - the I’m sorry chorus of So. Central Rain - he was withdrawn, singing that lyric from a stairwell outside the studio. And then he’d go on to re-record the vocal for the song’s video rather than lip-sync. Trying to get close was like nailing water.
Continuing a theme from Murmur, I don’t know what it is about today, but I’m just being drawn more to Mike Mills’ bass lines than I can ever remember. It feels like he is really driving these songs along more than you’d expect in a standard four-piece. Together with his backing vocals it only confirms his value to the band’s sound.
Pleasingly, when interviewed by David Buckley in 2002 for ‘R.E.M. | Fiction: An Alternative Biography’, which I’m leaning on time after time (honk!) for background, Mills said:
I always played a melodic bass, like a piano bass in some ways. I never wanted to play the traditional locked into the kick drum, root note bass work…melodic bass playing has always fascinated me. I just love melody.
I love it too, Mike, which is why Reckoning is such a fine album: it’s a stick of melody rock.