‘Little America’ - Reckoning
Reckoning (1984) is strikingly clearer than Murmur. Not only are the lyrics enunciated - still not storytelling, not necessarily linear - but the production also gives the band a much more cohesive sound, with Mike Mills’ backing vocals now very noticeable.
There are a few recurring themes in the album, the most signposted being water - though File Under Water has now ended up more or less a subtitle, both titles were on the spine of the original vinyl release and Stipe stated at the time that File Under Water was the intended title. ‘Time After Time (AnnElise)’ has a water tower, ‘So. Central Rain’ has a flood preventing a phonecall, ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville’ has the sea, and though it’s using the verb rather than the noun, there’s the harbour in ‘Harborcoat’.
The second one interests me a bit more, and it’s communication across distance, and leaving, and the jaded rootlessness of the band on tour. ‘So. Central Rain’ has a line I had mistaken for years as abstract word association - “Eastern to Mountain, third party call, the lines are down” - though it’s probably not that complicated, waiting for a call from the Eastern time zone (which includes Georgia) to Mountain time, disrupted by flooding in the South Central region of the US. The obstacle to communication is physical, but the narrator (“Did you never call? I waited for your call”) has enough doubt that the chorus is just a repeated “I’m sorry”, with the ‘oh’s going from plaintive to anguished. ‘Letter Never Sent’ is pining for Athens. ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville’, written by Mike Mills (but credited Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe, as were all the band’s songs), is a country-rocking plea against leaving, with the absolutely killer sell of “It’s not as though I really need you/If you were here I’d only bleed you/But everybody else in town only wants to bring you down/and that’s not how it ought to be”.
‘Little America’ is kind of a broad sweep. It’s somewhere between documentary, scathing and boredom - “Another Greenville/Another Magic Mart” - of the band on tour all the time. The title, whether or not it’s taken from a chain of rest stops, manages at once to make the generic small town a microcosm for the country (with farm museums and today’s belongings) and the small town sound small-time. “I can’t see myself at thirty/I don’t buy a lacquered thirty” also has that weird resonant power of age in songs, where it changes meaning slowly over time.