Time After Time (Annelise)
September 30, 2007
Before I ever owned a copy of Reckoning, I was obsessed with a song called “The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence” from the No Alternative compilation. It was the very first song that I ever heard by Pavement, who would eventually become my all-time favorite band, and it just happened to be a tribute to R.E.M. in general and Reckoning in specific. On a very basic level, it’s a song about the magic of discovering music without knowing all that much about it, and the way enthusiastic, imaginative fans can rush to fill in their own history and meaning to art when they are not weighed down by the baggage of a shared culture.
In 1984, R.E.M. was a mystery for Stephen Malkmus to solve, just as his band would become a puzzle for me in 1994, and I’m certain that both bands benefited enormously from withholding information the public, and forcing the listener to develop their own context based on what they could glean from the records and whatever made it into the mainstream press. As usual, imagination allows for greater drama and insight: “Unseen Power” starts off with Malkmus identifying with the band’s southern roots despite having spent his own formative years in California, and ends with him imagining R.E.M. as stoic defenders of Georgia who confront General William Tecumseh Sherman at the end of his devastating March to the Sea. It’s all rather colorful and strange, but in an intuitive way, it summarizes the band’s appeal in the early ’80s than most anything else I’ve ever encountered.
In the second verse, Malkmus provides a quick recap of R.E.M.’s discography as of 1984, with a decided focus on Reckoning and its tracklisting. Though I knew “So. Central Rain” and “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” at the time because I had a dubbed copy of Eponymous, some of the titles were warped by my adolescent ears, i.e., for some reason Reckoning came across as “Black Honey.” Through the verse, Malkmus seems awed by the songs, and so when I finally heard “Camera,” “Harborcoat” and “Pretty Persuasion” for myself, I was acutely aware of their legendary status, at least in the mind of the guy from Pavement. However, he made one thing very clear in that verse: “Time After Time” was his least favorite song. “TIME AFTER TIME” WAS HIS LEAST FAVORITE SONG!!!
“Time After Time” is not my least favorite song on Reckoning. Not even close, actually. Bill Berry and Peter Buck shine on the album version, with the former filling out the space between the latter’s loose, trebly notes with a variety of light percussive textures. The song gradually builds up to a rather majestic peak, but even still, the tone remains decidely mellow and understated. This is in part due to Michael Stipe’s cool, reserved vocal performance, and an airy arrangement that seems to evaporate into the atmosphere just when it rises into the sky. In a way, it’s the song on Reckoning that comes closest to what Malkmus achieved on his records with Pavement — it presents an extraordinary and specific sensation in a disconcertingly casual sort of way. In other words: “Time After Time” is slanted and enchanted.