Sequels to successful debut albums are tricky beasts. Caught between a desire to spend artistic capital on growth and experimentation and the pressure to recapture lightning in a similarly-shaped bottle, bands have littered the halls of rock music history with head-scratching follow-ups to their canonized first works. But while some sophomore efforts are born of calculation or early-onset hubris, others are simply driven by necessity and the natural combination of forces that act upon young bands. R.E.M.’s Reckoning is clearly an example of the latter, neither a total departure from big brother Murmur, nor a redundancy. And as such it remains nearly as heralded and celebrated a quarter of a century later.
The necessity in question that led to the relatively spartan, straight-ahead sound of Reckoning is mostly the fact that R.E.M. had been on the road for most of 1983, before and after the release of Murmur in April of that year. In December, they retreated back to Reflection Sound Studios in Charlotte, North Carolina and had at it again, with a week’s less time to put together a second record. Limited hours coupled with a year’s heavy touring imbued Reckoning with a more “live” feel, i.e. tighter rhythms, (slightly) clearer vocals, and less amplified and distorted billiard ball collisions (see Murmur’s “We Walk”). The songs were road-tested, in some cases to band’s earliest days (“Pretty Persuasion”, “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”), and there was presumably little need or desire to treat them significantly different in the studio. Thus, Reckoning, sporting local Georgia folk artist Howard Finster’s snaky, song title-laden cover art, hit record store shelves a year and two days after Murmur.
Opener “Harborcoat” featured all the trademark elements of early R.E.M.: Peter Buck’s chiming Rickenbacker, a sturdy Bill Berry backbeat, Mike Mills’ nervy basslines and counterpoint harmonies, and above it all, Michael Stipe’s nasal readings of lines like “Metal shivs on wood push through our backs.” Similarly, “Letter Never Sent”, “Second Guessing” and “7 Chinese Brothers” all blended Stipe’s hints and evocations with rootsy, dance floor-worthy folk pop amalgams. The peaks of the album however, were the gentle twists that suggested things to come: the direct, country reading of “Rockville”, the elegant, subtly mournful “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” and the clear-eyed commentary of “Little America”, which lamented the transformation of the nation the band was witnessing from its van’s windows, i.e. “Another Greenville, another Magic Mart”. It should be noted that this deluxe edition restores the original pressing’s bit of song/noise at the end of the album, as did a 1996 vinyl and gold CD reissue.
As with the reissue of Murmur, Reckoning is packaged with a 16-song live CD culled from a slightly longer performance at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom, rather than the customary collection of b-sides and outtakes, which is wise since nearly everything that could qualify as such as already been released on various editions and compilations. Having been recorded for Chicago’s WXRT radio station, the quality is fine, and the band offers exuberant renditions of “7 Chinese Brothers” (with a few lines from the outtake “Voice of Harold” thrown in for good measure) and b-side “Windout”, as well as a couple songs that wouldn’t debut on record for a year or two, including “Driver 8” (Fables of the Reconstruction) and a slower “Hyena” (Lifes Rich Pageant). This disc, apart from having a higher quality recording of the album than the original CD master, is the real draw for die-hard fans, but the whole package, as I’m sure will be the case with future forthcoming reissues, is a great way to reconnect with one of the seminal bands of the last 30 years.