5 stars out of 5. Immortal album.
Reckoning is essentially like living in the South on a good day. Bright yet reticent, forceful yet moody, R.E.M.’s second LP diversifies the sound of their debut without ever straying too far from what made us love them in the first place.
The producing team of Don Dixon and Mitch Easter returned and it was decided all around to try and match more of what the band’s live sound was and not polish all the material in the studio. In essence, the band wanted to maintain the spontaneity of the way they tore through songs with reckless abandon onstage. This makes Reckoning far more accessible than Murmur on first listen, but it isn’t any bit more decipherable.
The murk of the band’s sound was changed around a bit when the producers decided to record the album binaurally. (Meaning that two simultaneous recordings are made of every single part. this usually is done through a device made to house dual microphones in the general idea of recording sound the way it would be heard by a human head.) This gives the album an almost out of body feel that splendidly contrasts with the parts that rock harder.
This whole record has a darker feel than Murmur, and for one that was trying to sound more like live sound that seems a bit odd at first. However, you begin to realize that this is a band still learning the studio and recording process and just beginning to grasp at their own meaning. Reckoning becomes a fitting title because you read all sorts of things into the songs but overall you get the sense it’s about coming to some kind of realization. The alternate “File under Water” title (which was only along the spine of the original LP) is a more cryptic message, as if someone was trying to say: this record is figuratively drowning under water.
There are many bare emotional moments on the album that further the reckoning theme. Instead of simply cranking out Murmur II or delving into whatever the record company wanted (the label did want more commercially oriented material.) R.E.M. buried their heads in the sand and did just what they thought they should do. In “Camera’, the vocal is so full of utter anguish that the song becomes a sort of eulogy to emotion.
This is a more confident and more emotional album than its predecessor, and truly an unforgettable timeless classic. Michael Stipe is just as indecipherable as ever. The jangly punchiness of their earlier work is still here but coated in this “watery” murk. (listen to “Letter Never Sent”) Of course the murk has an air about it due to the recording process used. The detail and soundscape are wider but the focus more narrowed.
The cover art by Howard Finster features the song titles flowing at various stages of this twirly line thing…which I always took to be some sort of snake. Now I realize it’s more like a flowing river or body of water with the songs listed randomly so that the idea of ebb and flow sinks in. It’s a map. Clever.
My favorite track on the album is both the closing song and the most expressive of the album’s theme: : “Little America” is short, quirky, punchy, meandering, and nonsensical.
“Jefferson I think we’re lost.”
EDITIONS: As with all of the IRS era R.E.M. material, the original US vinyl is the best sounding version available. Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs made editions of Reckoning and Murmur that used the original master tapes. These have a great deal of low end and bass that isn’t present on any other release. Many claim to prefer these editions. I personally didn’t like the way that the sound was changed on Murmur, but Reckoning doesn’t sound as different on the MFSL release. In any case, these were released on 24 carat Gold CDs and vinyl and like all older MFSL titles went quickly out of print. They fetch quite substantial prices used.
The original IRS LP issue was pressed on Quiex vinyl. When holding this type of vinyl up to a light it will be a transluscent color. This album has been known to show up as brown, purple and green.
Also, the Columbia Record Club pressing is quite good, but sadly lacks the little musical interludes between some of the songs.
The original stock IRS CD is good, but sounds more like it came from an EQ’d tape copy meant for cassettes (A common practice in the earlier days of CD’s). The 1992 EU only IRS Vintage Years Edition sounds nearly identical, but features some pretty hard to find B-sides and covers. This series added some rarities to each IRS era album, but nearly all of these bonus tracks were later collected on the single release In the Attic. The Reckoning CD has a few that aren’t there, so it’s still worth a purchase if you should come across one. Plus it has in my opinion the best version of “White Tornado”. (Originally a B-side from the UK Superman single) It absolutely “crushes like a grape”* the version on Dead Letter Office.
The Deluxe Edition 2CD unfortunately suffers from the Loudness Wars and is a bit compressed. It isn’t a bad job, but still lamentable that it happened on an album where sound is absolutely key. the bonus disc has a live show from the era, and while the show is quite good, the sound quality is about equal to what bootlegs of the same show sounded like.
There was also a simultaneous 180gram vinyl release of the remastered album, but I’ve never tried it and there are no reviews of this particular pressing.
*-quote from Eponymous liner notes.