There are a few bands whose music I not only love to listen to, but also think about. R.E.M.'s discography provides room for endless speculation as to the meaning and source of its magic, but also just for endless remarking on its sheer quality. In this occasional column I intend to examine a few key tracks from each album and muse about what exactly makes them so significant.
Reckoning: to seek (or find) oneself, or to deliver justice.
The year following R.E.M's full-length debut, Murmur, saw them return with an album that bore many of the same characteristics: obscure lyrics delivered by Michael Stipe's low rumble, matched by Mike Mills' elegant counterpointing backup vox, propelled by Bill Berry's drums and given liftoff by Peter Buck's jangling guitars. Effectively, album two is a more polished version of album one. If Reckoning isn't exactly a reinvention of the band - certainly not on the order they would later achieve from disc to disc - it was a clear progression from what they started with. A fuller, more vibrant sound with a few more moving parts, a little more finely tuned. With more get-up-and-go. That statement is immediately made by the spellbinding back-and-forth-and-inside-out vocals of "Harborcoat" and the bright, shining riff of "& Chinese Bros.," an ideal Buck effort. Stipe's lyrics in that one, which apparently tell the story of a torrid love triangle of sorts invoking the folktale of the Chinese Brothers are a real highlight, as is...
The masterpiece of this album is the mournful "So. Central Rain," which also seems to have a narrative about lovers (or acquaintances at any rate) separated by a disastrous flood in Georgia. As the peppy piano and 12-string guitar plinks a sprightly tone, the guitars make room for Stipe's chasmic "sorries." The music, like rain, cannot be abated though, as the rhythm continues. The funerary "Camera" is another bright spot, moving from a low key verse to a soaring chorus - again, I would signify Buck as the hero of this song, as every movement of the guitar feels beautifully pained, staggering stuff.
All over this album, the band tries on folksy, country and westernish personae, but there's never any bid for legitimacy in that arena. It's not parody per se, but observation of some musical tropes. They're not making fun, and not imitating, but trying to play a musical character, express things in a way that can only be done with a certain type of music. That's why, I think, to a non-country-loving person like myself, the Very Much Country "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" is such a powerful, effective, enjoyable song. Rather than being a country band just doing what comes naturally, they put in the work to become one, just for a few songs on this album. Of course it doesn't hurt that they used to cover Roger Miller's "King Of The Road." That this rustic tune shares album space with the sweaty rockclub gem of "Pretty Persuasion" is a testament to the scope of this band's abilities and sense of identity.