REM’s second album set them on course to become the world’s biggest band and Getintothis Si Jones looks back at an artistic leap forward.
Sophomore is an odd word.
Over here you only really hear it in two very different contexts.
Firstly, it seems to crop up in movies to describe a second year student confidently strutting about a leafy campus, or alternatively, it is often applied to a second album, usually prefixed by ‘difficult’.
1984 found REM as unlikely figureheads of something hesitantly christened ‘alternative’. Their debut, Murmur had been highly lauded. This creeping and otherworldly album was universally revered.
Rolling Stone made it album of the year and it had become a beloved high water mark of burgeoning college radio.
Reckoning should absolutely be a ‘difficult’ sophomore effort, weighed down by expectation but what we get is subtlety subverted, a pristine and urgent sounding album.
Peter Buck, as usual, probably helped. The eternal record store clerk had been plotting this for years.
Aware of the pitfalls of over thinking this crucial stage for his band, the looked back to sixties.
Taking notes from rocks back pages a rapid fire recording ensued, get in the studio, play live with the same trusted producers. After a meagre ten days, the result of this outpouring of creativity was Reckoning.
Opening with the immediacy of Harborcoat and from its first drum roll and clipped guitar line, we are welcomed by an audible and legible Michael Stipe.
Whilst the lyrics are still oblique and opaque, they are so much higher in the mix. This sets the song free and lets the crystalline chorus soar and swoop back into to verses.
The first impression is that this feels effortless and unbridled. Any weight of expectation dispelled with pure Byrdisan pop within a matter of minutes.
From the outset an undercurrent of a theme begins to emerge. The entire album is fixated and flooded with water imagery, so much so it’s subtitled ‘File Under Water’ along the spine of the sleeve.
From the titular character of 7 Chinese Bros, and it’s lyrical call of ‘swallowing the ocean’ this is also particularly evident on stand out single So. Central Rain.
A beautiful paean to timeless sixties heartbreak, this exudes confidence and as it builds to the plaintive repeated refrain of “I’m Sorry” we are in territory that is perilously close to mainstream acceptance.
For a band that previously hid behind both both murky production and long fringes, this new found confidence is a joyous surprise.
Whilst still a world away from the de rigour polished new romantic sound of the times, Pretty Persuasion is another classic pop song. Rickenbacker’s jangle urgently and channel the spirit of Big Star, an absolute power pop rush of lush duelling harmonies.
Pavement released a track called Unseen Power of The Picket Fence, which was their own love letter to REM and this album in particular.
Imagining them as unlikely defenders of the South, Steve Malkmus eulogises most of this album but states that ‘Time After Time was my least favourite song’.
It’s not often I disagree with the erstwhile Mr Malkmus, but must do on this occasion. This is lovely, a stately Velvet Underground inspired track with gossamer fragile vocals underpinned with complex delicate percussion.
Bill Berry has always been underrated. Any drummer who quits the biggest band in the world to go and farm grain will inevitably be reduced to a footnote. Throughout this album he is impeccable.
On the driving Second Guessing, it is evident that he is the beating heart of this band, rapid fire high hats and scattershot toms propelling it forward.
It is no coincidence that after his departure the ‘three legged dog’ that was REM never captured these heights again.
Amidst the torrent of water based metaphors, there is a real sense of urgency throughout.
Ever the scholars of some of the more obscure corners of sixties and seventies the album is imbued with the spirit of classic garage rock.
Peter Buck’s afternoons spent behind the counter of Wuxtry Records were not wasted, allowing the band to mine a fresh seam of influences.
Letters Never Sent manages to be both hesitant and stuttering before channelling a garage pop groove in debt to the Nuggets compilation of long forgotten sixties gems.
REM’s proud love of their Southern roots has always been endearing. Whilst occasionally looking east or more often to the west coast of sixties, they have absorbed the sleepy small town southern mentality, albeit from a slightly off kilter and artier prism.
This is never more evident than on (Don’t Go Back to) Rockville, a Mike Mills penned hymn to blue collar small town regret accompanied by dive bar piano this Springsteen via Athens Georgia, completed with a heart breaking and heart on sleeve vocal from Stipe.
Maybe unburdened by the lyrics not being his own, this is the first time he lets down his guard and sings into a detached character vocal, a beautiful southern tinged country drawl.
As an album this encapsulates the tantalising outsider period of REM, the badly dressed southern interlopers on the cusp of defining America for the Eighties.
Soon there will be the slight misstep of Fables, but aside from that REM are in absolute unstoppable ascendency.
It’s a trajectory that will see them become unlikely globe straddling anti superstars of the Nineties and beyond.
That whole journey begins here.
By casting off the potential ghost of what should be their definitive debut and taking their first tentative steps to becoming a cohesive alternative pop band.
Michael Stipe will go onto be a reluctant spokesperson of a generation.
Here on closer Little America, amidst a barrage of thrashing guitar squall, he howls ‘Jefferson I Think we’re lost’.
I don’t think so Michael.