“Sophomore slump be damned!” That was Entertainment Weekly‘s summation of R.E.M.’s impressive second album, Reckoning, which came out this day in 1984. It was almost a year to the day after their promising, and glowingly-reviewed, debut Murmur and picked up where that one left off. If your preferred version of R.E.M. is one of brightly jangly guitar-based pop-rock songs, this is your album.
They’d recorded it in North Carolina again, with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter sharing the production duties and while it was similar to the debut, many noticed it was a crisper, more hook-laden record and Michael Stipe’s vocals, while still lyrically opaque at times, sounded much clearer. Rolling Stone gave it 4-stars and complimented its “crisper” sound and liked “R.E.M.’s considerable strengths – (Peter) Buck’s ceaselessly inventive strumming, Mike Mills’ exceptional bass-playing and (Michael) Stipe’s evocatively gloomy baritone.” Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A-” and loved how they incorporated “country and southern psychedelia” this time around, even if they found it a bit incohesive. The Washington Post simply stated at the time “there isn’t an American band worth following more than R.E.M.”
The sound was catchy and all ten of the songs quite capable of becoming earworms, and that endeared itself to college crowds and a few others in the day. However, that was back when “alternative rock” was still indeed, alternative. Reckoning topped college radio charts around the continent, but the album itself hit #27 in the States, better than their first one, and barely nicked the top 100 in Britain. It would get them a gold record, but only years later when more fans knew them and picked it up retroactively.
The album was chock-full of good tunes, many of which would become fan favorites and regulars in live sets they played for years to come – “Pretty Persuasion”, “7 Chinese Brothers” (inspired by a 1930s childrens’ book entitled Five Chinese Brothers...probably not readily stocked in bookshops these days!) and more than any of the others, “So. Central Rain”, subtitled “I’m Sorry”. That, the first single, squeezed into the singles chart, but gave no indication then of how it would become an alt-rock radio staple and one of their concert highlights for the rest of their career. The video actually has Stipe singing on it – he refused to lip sync for it, so it didn’t match the album entirely. However, maybe the most intriguing song on Reckoning was the second single – “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”.
While Stipe’s vocals are more decipherable on the other tracks than many of the Murmur ones, the lyrics tended to be pretty artistic and open to interpretation – “7 Chinese Brothers swallowing the ocean”? “If I’m to be your camera, who will be your face”? But not only did the distinctly country-ish twang separate “Rockville”, the lyrics were pretty straight-forward : “Don’t go back to Rockville,and waste another year/ at night I drink myself to sleep, pretend I don’t care if you’re not here with me…”.Easy to decipher that.
The reason it seems different is that while all four members share writing credits on all the R.E.M. songs, Michael Stipe normally wrote the lyrics. This one however, was from Mike Mills and it drew directly from his life. He wrote it when the band was only starting to really make itself known in their hometown of Athens, Georgia. He had a girlfriend at school there, Ingrid Schorr. They were hitting it off quite well when summer rolled around and her parents were concerned about how much partying might go on with her living at a university for a reputation for being a bit wild. So they ordered her home for the summer, bumming out Mills.
“I’m a footnote to rock history,” Schorr would later remark. She did return to Athens, eventually and got her degree before becoming a successful journalist, but it would seem she never rekindled the flames with Mills. But she remembers the genesis of the song, when she was hanging out with him at Tyrone’s, the city’s second most famous bar. He said to her “I finally meet a girl I like, and she’s got to go back to Rockville!” (And yes, Rockville is real, a city in Maryland). She wasn’t chuffed at going back north, since “everything in Athens was so fresh and exciting.” While she said “the lyrics, like the author are endearingly straight-forward” she was mad at a couple of things about it. First, she didn’t like the idea that Rockville, which Mills hadn’t visited, was a grimy factory town and she would “end up in some factory” – lines actually suggested by drummer Bill Berry. Rockville, she said was “a charmless mix of medium-swanky subdivisions, tract houses named after World War I battles and a real rednecky chain of donut shops. But factories? There were none!’ She also didn’t like that several books were written about the band and referred to her by name but never tried to get in touch with her to ask her side of the story. She says many stories even had her in a band with Lynda Stipe, Michael’s sister, which wasn’t at all true even though she did try her hand at drumming while in Athens.
The country-ish sound which worked so well, by the way was basically a joke that worked. Buck said they used to play it in an almost thrash-rock style before manager Bertis Downs suggested they slowed it down. So they did, and added the twang since Downs was a country fan. The joke worked. Although it didn’t chart as a single (it did make college rock ones) it also was a popular one in their live sets afterwards and after a few years, Mills himself took over the lead vocals for it. It was also apparently a favorite of one of the few girlfriends of Stipe – Natalie Merchant. She recorded a cover version of it with 10 000 Maniacs.
“Rockville”- a song about a destination and the trip not wanted. That song is going places – which coincidentally is the topic that will be discussed on Turntable Talk starting here tomorrow.