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Reckoning Deluxe Edition Review

R.E.M’s Reckoning was the second full length and third major release by R.E.M. In terms of their earlier material it was a much more direct album, not relying on the studio to create an atmospheric record but rather incorporate more of the band’s live sound rather than their studio talents on Murmur and Chronic Town.

As I have written before, it was the first of their albums that I had significantly appreciated and made me yearn for more.

That being said, reissues often have the task of trying to exemplify a purpose for the release. For example, is the reissue out of print or severely needing of remastering for it to limits of technology from years prior?

In the case of these deluxe editions, the point has always been to bring a sense to the world that R.E.M. existed 25 years ago. Reckoning, and it’s predecessor ‘Murmur’ were two of the most important contributions to the decade of the 80’s slowly changing Rock music from being defined by synths and to a guitar/bass/drums genre. Along the way, R.E.M. led the way for other acts, especially from America, inspired by the Punk Movement and using the tools it provided to provide a much more free reign atmosphere for what was allowed.

R.E.M. understood Rock and Roll. They knew what worked and what was cliché. The promotion for Reckoning was unique in itself. 1984, was during the heyday of the music video. We had just seen Michael Jackson moonwalk his way into history and at the same time it was R.E.M. despising the music format and expanding on the video realm.

Their video, So. Central Rain was made with Michael Stipe, not lip synching but providing actual vocals to this while the other members were pretending to play their instruments.  Michael Stipe’s despising of lip-synching after what they considered the disasterous video for Wolves, Lower, was not standard fare in the video age.

And neither was Left of Reckoning. Left of Reckoning was a video made by James Herbert, of R.E.M. at Reuben Millers Whirigig Farm near Gainesville, Georgia, composed of R.E.M. wandering through the farm with the backing audio of the first side of Reckoning.

A compilation of R.E.M. videos by James Herbert

These unique videos showed just how many chances the band was willing to take in the early days, a band that was not interested of supporting the Go-Go’s another IRS band but rather follow their own hearts and minds touring the country.  It was this attitude that was necessary in the creation of Reckoning.

Reckoning could never be ‘Murmur Part 2’.  The critical success of ‘Murmur’ challenged the band from being typecast, an element they always despised. Even in the early days of the bands formation, they never wanted to be labeled as another “Athens Dance Band” but instead create their own sound. And as strong as ‘Murmur’ was, ‘Reckoning’ had to be exactly what it was, a ‘Reckoning’.

The album was recorded fairly quickly, especially, if you consider how much time the band spends recording albums now. There was not many experimentations being done, instead the point was to lay down the tracks that they had been playing live the months before this. Out of the 10 tracks on the album, ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville, and Pretty Persuasion, were two of their earliest tracks, each making their way onto their live shows in 1980, the year they formed.

Harborcoat and Seven Chinese Bros. were tunes already pretty constant in their tour for Murmur and by early October the remaining tracks had all made their way into the live shows one way or another.

When the band made their network TV debut in America in October of 1983, the band was so bold as even to play So. Central Rain on the air. What is unique about this was that the song had yet to be named and had only been played, based on historical evidence, only twice. The song was neither a single nor on an album that had even been developed yet. Looking back at this, for a band that is trying to make it big, you would expect to see possibly Sitting Still or another known song to make it’s way as the follow-up to ‘Radio Free Europe’ on this evening. R.E.M. had other plans.

R.E.M. performing So. Central Rain on David Lettermann

I write all of this based on trying to set the stage for this review.

Many of the super fans out there will not even give this release a passing look for many reasons.

1) The album suffers from the same “Loudness” issues as other releases. Comparing this CD to the Mobile Fidelity release, I would suggest that the Mobile Fidelity is still a better master. The Mobile Fidelity release is a much more “Warmer” recording. For those that are very picky about what their ears are absorbing, I would suggest picking up the LP Deluxe Edition instead.

2) The deluxe edition does not offer anything “Unique” to the R.E.M. puzzle. While most of the demos have hit the bootleg circuit from this era, many fans were hoping for a show that had not been circulated before. What we have instead is an ‘Almost Complete’ show from the Aragon Ballroom, from July 7, 1984.  I will discuss some of the minor criticisms with the show not being complete later on.

Superfans can be cranky. I know because I am one!

What the Reckoning Deluxe Edition does instead is paint a perfect portrait of what R.E.M. was in 1984, just like they did with the Murmur Deluxe Edition that was released last November.

Reading the liner notes written by Tony Fletcher, offer a perfect guide for the novice trying to understand the band at this period. He mentions the idea of “Communication” as a central ingredient or theme to this record. The band up to this point had spent much of their time on the road, turning concertgoers into R.E.M. fans as they flocked their intimate gatherings. But that time spent on the road also meant different themes making it onto this record.

I had mentioned the word “Cliché” earlier and that is exactly what this album isn’t. It is a road record in the truest sense but also very original. It was not about hotel rooms and alcohol, but an album about the personal struggles of missing loved ones and the personal struggles within the band.

‘Letter Never Sent’ offers that simple message, almost a postcard being sent from one friend to another whereas the double entendre ‘Little America’ feels both like a political statement of living during the Reagan years intermixed as a road song. The phrase “Jefferson I Think We’re Lost” was clever in both in meaning and theme. Is Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and writer of the Declaration of Independence or Jefferson Holt, the band’s manager at the time?

There are other songs such as ‘Second Guessing’ which speak of Michael’s relationship with Mike, Peter and Bill. However, in my eyes it would also seem to be an indictment of the media during this period. By this time, Michael was beginning to grow weary of the media attention that the band was getting, and as 1984 rolled in, the interviews with reporters and critics was mainly done by Peter and Mike.

‘Reckoning’ is an album that works best traveling the highways of America, it’s endless landscape of farmland at its fingertips. It doesn’t try to get too close to it’s subjects but rather offer a rear window glance with one exception.

‘Camera’ was the intimate portrait, an ode to a friend, Carol Levy, who had died in a car crash. What has always struck me was the vulnerability that Michael Stipe portrays in the lyrics. . . . ‘I fell by your bed once, I didn’t want to tell you’.  It was far reaching in Stipe’s ability to grasp the emotion of the song and portray something delicate.

As for the live show, the Aragon Theatre performance from Chicago in 1984 offers a perfect glimpse of the band during this era. Owning a bootleg copy of this show, and probably not the best copy around I was struck immediately by the wonderful versions contained within this performance. My immediate reaction was the intense drumming and bass which to me were some of the more defining characteristics other than Peter Buck’s stylish guitar playing.

When I compare early R.E.M. live to their current shows was the reckless abandon the band would portray on their earliest records. They were children of the punk era and they brought an energy and exuberance to the stage that was in many cases unmatched by many of their peers. They weren’t on top 40 radio and yet understood perfectly that “Word of Mouth” was some of the best press.  And speaking matter-of-fact, that is how I found out about them.

As would be a fairly common during the ‘Little America’ tour, there was not necessarily a debut song that would be played pretty consistently from night to night and in Chicago it was no different, opting to play the Velvet Underground cover “Femme Fatale”.  Since their inception, R.E.M. had been fond of their forefathers and the songs they would play. A study in R.E.M. is a study in rock genealogy. And while this song was maybe an odd choice, their next one ‘Radio Free Europe’ would surely get the fans on their toes. What is unique, however, about this performance is the choice of lyrics that Michael chooses. Glancing at any of the various lyric sheets for this song on the internet, you would be hard-pressed to find any that match what Stipe is singing on this particular occasion. This was Stipe at his best, as he completely rethought the lyrics to the song and if you were standing in the audience on this particular night you would have to do a double-take in what he was singing, immediately going back home and listening to it on headphones. It only added to the mystery that shrouded this band in the early days.

There is nothing that can match the tenacity of the Gardening at Night / 9-9 / Windout trifecta as the songs melded into one, following each other perfectly.   

The band was also in the process of trying out newer material, performing ‘Driver 8’ a song that had made it’s debut only a month earlier. This version’s lyrics slightly differ from the version on Fables of The Reconstruction early on as the “Wall’s Constructed” instead of “The walls are built up”.  A second song “Hyena” was also being performed, also making its debut about a month earlier. While this song did not make the final cut for “Fables of the Reconstruction”, we hear how the band uses the live stage to hone their craft in the early days something that they recently relied on heavily with their last album, ‘Accelerate’.

And of course there is one of my all time favorites, ‘Seven Chinese Bros.’ with some lyrics in this version which might interest fans. The story would be told that during the making of ‘Reckoning’ that Don Dixon wanted Michael to provide a certain level on emotion on this song that he felt wasn’t being represented on the recording. In doing so he instructed Stipe to read the back liner notes to a gospel album, ‘The Joy of Knowing Jesus’ by the Revelaires. This song made it as a B-Side but in this particular case Stipe substituted part of the lyrics for ‘Seven Chinese Bros.’ from this song giving fans a cherished nugget at their disposal.

Some might complain about this show not being the complete set. It is true that the band played two other songs on this evening, ‘King of the Road’ and “Walk, Don’t Run’ which were not featured on this second disc. My understanding is that this had less to do with the fact that these were covers and more to do with the fact that the songs themselves were missing from the radio show that was broadcast on WXRT in Chicago.

As we turn back the clock to this era, there was not the same amount of importance being placed at keeping a historical and audio guide into the past. Shows being broadcast on local radio stations at the time were most likely being recorded and spliced to fit a slot. This would mean that sometimes nuggets such as the aforementioned songs would end up on the cutting room floor. That is what happened in this case.

Does the Deluxe Edition succeed in what it was attempting to accomplish. Absolutely. Sound issues, etc. aside, this release gives something to all fans. If you want the perfect recording, go for the LPs. If you want to understand R.E.M. during this period, it’s an admirable product for the time.