R.E.M. – Fables Of The Reconstruction

Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985)

B+

1. Feeling Gravitys Pull 2. Maps And Legends 3. Driver 8 4. Life And How To Live It 5. Old Man Kensey 6. Can’t Get There From Here 7. Green Grow The Rushes 8. Kohoutek 9. Auctioneer (Another Engine) 10. Good Advices 11. Wendell Gee

 

After Reckoning, perhaps realizing they couldn’t top it if they continued with its straightforward approach (allegedly Buck wanted to add a bunch more songs to it and make it a double album, so you know he was pretty hot on what they were doing with that one), the Remmers decided they needed to change things up a bit. So they jetted to England to unite with Nick Drake’s producer Joe Boyd and record the odd duckling in their IRS catalog. Some people see this record as the beginning of the end, I guess because there’s a stray string section here and there and Stipe is beginning to sing just a bit more clearly (although his lyrics remain generally nonsensical), but to me it just sounds like Reckoning with slower tempos and fewer catchy riffs.

I see what they were going for though, because they achieve it with 100% success on “Driver 8,” a general consensus all-time great REM song. The sound is so clearly recognizable as vintage “early REM” you wouldn’t have to think more than two seconds about who it was if you heard it on the radio, but the subdued, folky underpinnings of the verse and bridge (which even has some hoedown harmonica on it) mesh with Buck’s classic riff in a manner unlike any other REM song. Unfortunately, it’s they only time they score a direct hit with this new formula – their other attempts mostly consist of, um… playing slower. And it certainly doesn’t help that Boyd totally muddies up the mix, which begs the question – why go to England and work with and English producer in order to make your “Americana” album? It’s like cutting taxes in order to reduce the deficit. Simply ridiculous.

But I think the biggest issue with this album is that it starts out on such shaky ground. The first song here is “Feeling Gravitys Pull” (nope, no apostrophe. For some reason REM are anti-apostrophe. Why pick on such an innocuous punctuation? At least stand up against something that matters, like the overuse of dashes or parentheses. For examples, see everything written on this website), which combines an unsettling, dissonant riff with lyrics about falling asleep while reading (an awesome combination made for nonstop excitement if there ever was one!) and then just griiiiiiiinds along for nearly 5 minutes. It’s an interesting song in its self-conscious murkiness, and it certainly doesn’t sound like anything the band had even attempted before, but… ugh. It just doesn’t seem like the best idea to start an album off with something so lacking in hooks. The REM-by-numbers strumalong “Maps And Legends” follows, and is also decent, but why does it have to be sooooo slowwwwwwww? Play it faster and I’m sure I’d like it better (and I’m no born and bred punk rocker, so unlike for some people that isn’t necessarily a universal rule for me). Side 1 ends with “Old Man Kensey,” which is like “Feeling Gravitys Pull” except uglier and without the “cloud break” bridge section. In between these slices of Slow Tempo bread are “Driver 8” and “Life And How To Live It,” one of the best (and fastest!) rockers they’d done to this point, but the holes in this material are obvious.

However, for as much as they fumble around on the first half of this thing, I have no qualms whatsoever about side 2. The tempos remain slow, and the mix remains opaque, but with samey-yet-awful-pretty mid-tempo janglers like “Green Grow The Rushes” (“7 Chinese Bros.”-aping riff) and “Kohoutek” (Stipe shakily attempts falsetto) they manage to settle into a really nice, hazy groove. And to keep the proceedings from dragging, there are a couple of rockier diversions. The first of these is “Can’t Get There From Here,” a skittery blind-man-in-a-dark-cave stab at funk (these guys sound about as black playing music as Vivaldi, so this song was hardly a good idea on paper) that I inexplicably consider to be a great single. Partially because it’s a total goof, with a dopey horn section and lead vocals I imagine Stipe thought were approximating Johnny Cash, and its nice to hear the aural result of REM cracking a smile for once. But mostly because it has a terrific chorus – the lead and backing vocals intertwine just about perfectly, to the point that, like many of REM’s best choruses, it’s not particularly obvious which part is supposed to be the “lead.” That Mike Mills is pretty goddamned valuable on these early and mid period records as a backup vocalist… not Keith Richards in ’72 valuable, of course, but so many REM songs rely on his singing to get to that next level. The album’s final rocker is the angular post-punker “Auctioneer (Another Engine),” which features neat, clangy percussion and some truly inspired Buck riffing (he once again conjures some dissonance on the chorus and finally makes it work by making it sound tense and creepy instead of just ugly). I love it and think it would sound awesome in a car commercial. Like one of those ones where the car is driving randomly around the desert for no reason while words like “Sleek,” “Refined” and “0% APR Financing” are superimposed on the screen. And I swear that’s a compliment. Or is it supposed to sound like a train? Ah, fuck it, they both have wheels and go fast. Oh, and I guess “Wendell Gee” doesn’t sound like the other songs here, since it’s a sappy country ballad with a banjo that Peter Buck hates and was for some reason was released as a single, but I like that one too. I like banjo. And ice cream. Mmmmm.

Fables wasn’t very well received when it came out for the issues I’ve mentioned, and the impression at the time was that the band itself didn’t much care for it either, but so many years later it now has as many proponents (like Michael Stipe) as detractors (like Bill Berry, who once claimed that it “sucked”). And though I certainly reach for it much less than any of their other IRS albums, I wouldn’t wrinkle my nose at it… at least not too often.



One Comment

  1. Justin wrote:

    Fables of the Reconstruction marked the first, and only, time an R.E.M. album would complement Michael Stipe’s muddled slurred vocal delivery with equally muddled music/production. That would be a bad thing for most other bands but for R.E.M. it does not give diminished returns – it’s an asset and, perhaps, par for the course. Fables wins out due to its shimmering, achingly beautiful melodies/vocal performances on nearly every track. They bust out of the dark and muck and let some much needed light filter in exposing some R.E.M.’s most character-centric and varied songs to date, with some of Peter Buck’s most adventurous guitar playing. Fables had always fascinated me from the album’s artwork to its mysterious songs about strange people and strange places.

    R.E.M. had long established a vague, mysterious writing style by 1985. That mystery always seemed somewhat contemporary and relatable until Fables, with the exceptions of “Gardening at Night” and “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” from the Chronic Town EP. The songs on Fables seem to come from another time and space, either real or imagined, if not some combination of both, which gives the album an even stranger pull. Fables of the Reconstruction served as the final statement in R.E.M.’s initial dreamy, folk-rock sound. It is a style they did well, really well and they’ve never returned to it since this record. Perhaps it might be in their best interest to revisit the dreamy jangle of the early 80’s — just saying.


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