R.E.M. ventured into uncertain territory for its third studio album; having done all its previous releases with producer Mitch Easter relatively close to the band’s Athens home base, this time around the band flew to England to work with Joe Boyd. While producer and band had a decent working relationship and a healthy respect for each other, the four members were clearly out of their comfort zone, in a country where their indie-rock reputation had not yet spread, suffering through a cold and dreary winter quite unlike their usual climate, and unsure of where to take the next record musically. The result is Fables of the Reconstruction (or possibly Reconstruction of the Fables, since the phrase ‘of the’ appears twice on the album’s cover art), a murky, often melancholy album that’s probably the least accessible of their early work. Years later, drummer Bill Berry would tell Rolling Stone that “Fables sucked,” but behind the murk is a rewarding depth and songs that have become essential parts of the R.E.M. canon.
Peter Buck’s familiar chiming guitars pervade the album, but are often sent to the background as a foreboding atmospheric element. He provides plenty of more assertive lead guitar lines throughout, and Mike Mills steps up on bass to drive many of the songs like Kohoutek and Old Man Kensey (the latter song sharing a writing credit with J. Ayers). Buck, Mills and Berry mesh exceptionally well on “Life and How to Live It,” one of the rare up-tempo tracks on the album. Another, “Cant Get There from Here,” actually boasts a horn section at the end, one which screams “four white guys bringing on a tiny amount of the funk” in a lightly self-deprecating way – it’s a fun song, and one of the bright moments of the album.
More typical is “Driver 8,” the album’s best-known song and one which really represents the essence of R.E.M. at the time. The album maintains a consistent mood thanks to the relatively slow pace of the songs and Michael Stipe’s delivery of lyrics that are still often highly allegorical or close to incomprehensible, although he starts making forays into social commentary with “Green Grow the Rushes.” The band’s isolation and homesickness comes through strongly in his singing and in the stories often drawn from the more eccentric side of the South. While not necessarily telling complete narratives, Stipe takes on more of the role of the storyteller here – stories that I feel more than I comprehend. If you’re willing to give Fables time to wash over you, you might feel them too.
After R.E.M. achieved international success with Warner Bros., IRS Records re-released the band’s early catalogue overseas with additional tracks, mostly live performances and remixes along with the occasional b-side. These additional tracks remain unavailable on U.S. versions of the album.
- Feeling Gravitys Pull (4:48)
- Maps and Legends (3:01)
- Driver 8 (3:18)
- Life and How to Live It (4:20)
- Old Man Kensey (4:10)
- Cant Get There from Here (4:10)
- Green Grow the Rushes (3:42)
- Kohoutek (3:10)
- Auctioneer (Another Engine) (2:41)
- Good Advices (3:30)
- Wendell Gee (2:56)
(Track listing reflects original U.S. release; foreign re-releases contain additional tracks)
Released by: IRS Records/Capitol
Release date: 1985
Total running time: 39:43