I got Reckoning on Christmas Day 1995, two days after receiving Murmur. I’ve always preferred the former, but nowadays I listen to the latter more and even though it’s clearly magnificent - no difficult second album syndrome here - I probably don’t appreciate it as much as I should. It’s less mysterious and ornate, more direct and in your face; amusingly enough, in places I find it even harder than Murmur to parse the lyrics.
Harborcoat - an astonishingly catchy beginning; Bill’s drums never sounded so tight and perfect here. Does Mills or Stipe come up with those countermelodies and alternative lyrics? So much additional beauty and meaning! That last chorus when Buck’s overdubbed guitar line comes in = heaven
7 Chinese Bros. - a bizarre historical allegory and/or song about (by his own admission) Stipe splitting up a couple and shagging them both. I doubt I could recite a tenth of the lyrics.
So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry) - Part II of the couple incident, where Stipe has messed something up, wants redemption and can’t find it. It’s a lovely song, but I honestly consider it overrated compared to the colossally high esteem it gets from critics.
Pretty Persuasion - a song about swingers, says Stipe, and could also be read as an early admission of his bisexuality. Such a wonderful riff. One day I’ll master this song on guitar (no I won’t, I’m too shit.)
AnneLise (Time After Time) - Finally, the band’s Velvet Underground influences come to the fore. I always adored this song, which very much goes against the critical consensus. Now I know why I love it: this song is an unashamed dirge, drone, mantra, which my jaded adult self worships. The bridge (middle 8?) is heavenly. Stipe loves this song, and he kens better than most.
Second Guessing/Letter Never Sent: two “slight” songs to clear the palate. Both are good, and I appreciated them all the more after the 2007 “Live at the Olympia” recordings. I love the weary cynicism of “what will you look this season? Who will be your book this season?”
Camera: so, so, so heartbreakingly beautiful. About a photographer friend of the band (and onetime girlfriend of Stipe) who died in a car crash when they were away on tour. Even knowing that, you could still parse this song in a dozen different ways and reach a dozen different truths. For me, a year after my wife died, I listen to that gorgeous chorus and hear: “You’re no longer with us, and it’s up to me to guard and treasure and preserve your memory forever and all. But without you here to inspire me, I can only ever fail” and it hurts so much.
(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville - another great, “simple” palate cleanser. Nothing to say other than that.
Little America - I appreciate the subtle change Stipe made to the lyrics after Jefferson Holt left REM HQ for as yet undisclosed unpleasant behaviour: altering “Jefferson, I think we’re lost” to “Washington, I think we’re lost” is wonderfully simple yet so clever.
25th Anniversary edition note: the album sounds a lot brighter and clearer, but again is probably too loud. When I first got this I was shocked to hear the unfinished song snippet after “Little America” - it had apparently been excised from CD editions until the remaster came out.
Summary: yeah, I love this album. Up there with R.E.M.’s best, but much better is yet to come…