R.E.M.’s stunning 1983 debut effort Murmur was followed quickly in the next year with their second album, Reckoning, and it continues largely in the same vein. Peter Buck’s guitar still jangles and Michael Stipe’s voice is still barely coherent. However, it is clear that the band has evolved.
“Harborcoat”, the album’s upbeat opener, shows the subtle changes that Reckoning contains. Bill Berry’s drums begin the album with a ferocity not seen in Murmur, while Buck’s guitar jangles with a more pronounced clarity and sound.
The most noticeable change is with the combination of bassist Mike Mills’ and Stipe’s vocals, with Mills providing new sounds and harmonies in almost every song on the album. However, Stipe is not outshone, and in “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”, (a song written by Mills), he strikes the most beautiful vocal melodies he has recorded thus far, and it shows that his lyrical style has also undergone a subtle change.
While the trademark mumble of Murmur is still present on tracks like “Letter Never Sent”, he also conjures up thought-provoking images on tracks like “7 Chinese Bros.”, with lyrics such as “Seven thousand years the Communi did reign/Will she return?” hinting at political motives, and “So. Central Rain,” with its water imagery, as well as “Pretty Persuasion,” which portrays the changing life of the band as it gains fame and begins to tour.
Much of Reckoning then is expanding the methods R.E.M. used so well on Murmur, which it does successfully on the first side of the album. However, the band also begins to demonstrate its experimental side and willingness to change its style. “Time After Time (Annelise)” employs hand percussion instead of normal drums and sounds like nothing else the band has released thus far, while the slow-paced “Camera” is powered almost exclusively by Mills’ bass and Stipe’s vocals, while Buck’s melodic guitar lines lurk underneath.
Clearly R.E.M. are a band with a lot to give. The band is not afraid to move away from the successful style that brought it fame, employing different techniques to show off the talents of their different members, in their characteristically democratic way. However, as the first four songs show, an indeed the album closer “Little America”, the band are still mainly fueled by Buck’s ceaselessly inventive jangly guitar, and Stipe’s continuously provocative lyrics.
R.E.M. are in the process of evolving; Murmur and Reckoning can be looked at as the first chapter in their book, and it is undoubtedly a classic. Here are 10 simple stories, beautifully written and endlessly rewarding. The future is bright, and with the sum of these four men’s talents, this band can go anywhere.