Many bands stumble with their second album, usually because the group members have exhausted their cache of good songs on their debut. But R.E.M. had such a large store of material that Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry actually discussed making Reckoning—the group’s 1984 sophomore effort—a double album. Their confidence was understandable: Through relentless touring, R.E.M. had become a great live band. And the band members showed off that growing muscle with Reckoning, which features a live sound that captured R.E.M.’s sweaty, dynamic, onstage sound. Many of the songs on Reckoning are powered by guitarist Buck’s rippling arpeggios, fast picking, fluid strumming, and propulsive rhythmic sense. “Pretty Persuasion” and “Second Guessing” showcase the bright tone of his Rickenbacker guitar, and his riffs and licks define the songs and set them in motion—similar to the way Keith Richards did in The Rolling Stones, even though the bands have little in common. Yet for listeners who’d discovered the band via 1983’s cryptic Murmur—and who’d been left wondering just who these guys were, or what Stipe was singing about—Reckoning didn’t offer more clues. Instead, the album is full of water imagery (hazardous harbors, deadly floods, oceans, water towers, and metaphorical “rivers of suggestion”) that deepens the mystery of the songs. And while the members of R.E.M. never sounded like they were from the South—they didn’t sound like they were from America, or even from Earth, given how out of time the music was—there is a small nod to the group’s home state of Georgia in “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville,” a loping, country-ish number that Mills, the band’s bassist, wrote as an entreaty to a girlfriend who was going back to her hometown of Rockville, Maryland for the summer. To promote Reckoning, R.E.M. debuted the gorgeous, keening ballad “So. Central Rain” on Late Night with David Letterman—an appearance that pushed the group even closer to the mainstream. As a result, the song reached a modest Number 85 on the Billboard singles chart—another small step forward in their path towards headlining arenas.

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