Over at the Ringer, the film critic (and my friend) Adam Nayman and I endeavored to explain what makes R.E.M.’s Reckoning such a timeless masterpiece, on the occasion of its 35th birthday. With assists from Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, R.E.M. sideman Scott McCaughey and Reckoning producer Mitch Easter!
Nearly four decades after the fact, it remains a source of mystery. How, exactly, did R.E.M. seem to emerge perfectly formed in 1982, like the armored Athena sprouting directly from the head of Zeus? Guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, drummer Bill Berry, and lead singer Michael Stipe were four individuals whose distinct skill sets and overlapping aesthetics complemented one another so perfectly that they seemed to proceed at once with an assurance belying other great bands. There appeared to be no learning curve, no hesitation, and no anxiety. Instead, beginning with the ready-made brilliance of their first single, “Radio Free Europe,” early R.E.M. records played like instant classics that for some reason no one had thought to make. Curated from a crate digger’s sensibility and abetted by an air of regional specificity and emotional idiosyncrasy, the records were both new and old, immediately accessible and mysterious in the extreme.
Following the scene-setting 1982 EP Chronic Town and the masterful full-length debut Murmur the next year, 1984’s Reckoning is both a refinement of the band’s early sound and a kind of culmination. It is the last record they would make with legendary producer Mitch Easter, the visionary singer-songwriter of Let’s Active, whose singular talent for finely honed, fast-moving pop would begin to be displaced in future iterations of the band by a more humid, melancholic feel. Reckoning is, in short, a nearly perfect distillation of an extravagantly talented young band playing with house money—not yet superstars, but well on their way, unfamiliar with failure and drawing from a seemingly limitless storehouse of top-notch material.
Our attempt to reckon with Reckoning starts with going through the record on a track-by-track basis: Because Elizabeth is an actual musician, her analysis has a lot to do with how R.E.M.’s music actually works and sounds, while Adam, being a superfan with no musical training or ability, is a bit more steeped in the band’s lore. We’ve also solicited input from R.E.M. aficionado Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, former R.E.M. affiliate member/fifth Beatle Scott McCaughey, who eventually joined the band in the early ’90s, and Mitch Easter himself.