R.E.M. Reckoning [Deluxe Edition](Universal / A&M / IRS) Buy it from Insound
Sometimes, when in the company of suitably opinionated music lovers, I like to announce that I think R.E.M. are a better band that The Rolling Stones. Don't judge me, you have to get your fun where you can. It can be a shocking pronouncement, and is often met with gasps and barely contained contempt. Generally I think that it's ludicrous to create hierarchies of favourite bands (they are loved for different, often conflicting reasons) but sometimes it's important to push an under-appreciated act out there.
"Under-appreciated" might seem completely inapplicable to a band that has sold millions on millions of records and can easily sell out stadiums, but, despite their well-known name, R.E.M. are hardly ever talked about for releasing some of the most mysterious, enchanting music ever created. I know this because when, in the aforementioned debate, I go on to talk about releases like Murmur, Life's Rich Pageant, and, Reckoning, few people seem to have heard these records. While everybody knows about such over-exposed hits as those spawned by Automatic For the People, how many people know about the brilliance of Radio Free Europe, or, Harborcoat?
The truth is that R.E.M. have never been "rock and roll", and that's why the juxtaposition of their name against the Stones is funny. While the latter will leave a legacy of drug abuse, death, and womanizing, the former have never been afraid to embrace their sunny, populist side. The Stones are often cited, and indeed commended, as survivors of orgiastic excess; R.E.M. released, Shiny Happy People. The Stones are fronted by spectacular showman extraordinaire Mick Jagger, R.E.M. have shy, retiring Michael Stipe. I'm not trying to put R.E.M. down (Stipe is a fantastic showman in his own right), more make a case for why their earlier work is neglected on the basis of skin-deep assessments. I wasn't immune to this. I never liked R.E.M., and I too associated them with their more grating hits. It wasn't until I was left alone in my house for a summer when I was 16 that I really got into, and understood them.
I can't remember why I bought Murmur, but I have a feeling that it had something to do with a friend encouraging me to give the band a chance. I have a feeling that it also had something to do with the incredibly evocative "Southern gothic" cover that is both off-putting and exciting, tempting in its mystery. I spent the rest of the summer smoking cigarettes and listening to Murmur, which is now one of my favourite ever albums.
It's hard to describe what's so brilliant about it and this is half the point. Michael Stipe half-sings most of the words, and even when you catch a lyric, you'll be hard-pressed to translate the cryptic stream-of-consciousness style into something sensical. It's this almost dadaist effect that makes reading J. Niimi's 33 1/3 book on Murmur so ironically fitting, as it mainly focuses on descriptions of Athens and "Southern gothic", displacing the almost impossible task of actually describing the music entirely. Almost inaudible by name, indescribable by nature, it's an album that taps into something that's, paradoxically, both accessible and inexpressible.
Reckoning is the work of a band who have been exposed, no doubt more than they were prepared for, and the music is more direct and "live" sounding than its predecessor. Similarly, Stipe's vocals have been pushed to the forefront more, although the lyrics are no more decipherable for it. Despite these differences, Reckoning is very much the work of the same band as Murmur. Harborcoat is just as propulsive, and surprising, an opener as Radio Free Europe, and, So. Central Rain is as effectively cathartic as Laughing, or, Moral Kiosk. Elsewhere, (Don't Go Back To) Rockville is just as good a rock song as Catapult.
Most importantly, the sense of mystery and that evocative out-of-placeness that was so hard to put into words with Murmur, is retained to full, glorious effect on Reckoning. While R.E.M. have never fitted comfortably into that cliched "rock and roll" mythology as many other bands have tried (and still try) to do, their early work stands as a testament to their unique genius, whatever claims are made about their modern incarnation. While I started this review by recounting a contrast I like to make in jest, my hope is not to call for a reassessment of the Rolling Stones, a band I actually like, but rather to draw attention to an under-appreciated, lesser known part of R.E.M.'s recorded work, a part I feel gets over-looked and ignored at the expense of brilliant music. My hope is that these reissues of Murmur and Reckoning will inspire curiosity and draw attention to some of the best, and ironically, least known albums of one of the most famous bands on the planet. Do yourself a favour and smoke a cigarette to early R.E.M., it is the summer after all.14 July, 2009 - 06:22 — Nick Fenn