The “difficult second album” is a hoary old music biz cliché, but it was R.E.M.’s third album that really put the pioneering alt-rock group to the test.
Two decades since R.E.M. released its first five albums on the quasi-indie label I.R.S. Records, history has more or less reconfigured those records into a singular entity, a glorious musical parade marching out over a five-year period that was alternative rock’s first unequivocal entry in the greater rock canon. While the music on those releases is on average definitely well-deserving of such acclaim, such an examination obscures the finer details of R.E.M.’s recording history, as the 25th anniversary reissue of the band’s third album, Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), demonstrates. Nonetheless loaded with music that lesser bands tried to emulate but never matched, Fables of the Reconstruction stands today as the weakest of the group’s pre-Warner Bros. releases, the result of a uncomfortable recording environment and the band being stuck in a bit of a sonic rut.
Fables of the Reconstruction depicts R.E.M. at a creative crossroads. It was the first album the critically lauded cult group recorded without producers/fellow Southerners Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. Instead, the Athens, Georgia quartet headed to England to record tracks with Joe Boyd, who was well-regarded for his work with British folk luminaries ranging from Fairport Convention to Nick Drake, not to mention with early Pink Floyd. In retrospect, the location choice proved to be unwise. Exhausted by years of nonstop touring, the band members were further wound down in England by a numbing daily commute to the recording studio, dreary winter weather, and unpleasant food. Years later, the musicians revealed that they came perilously close to calling it quits during the making of the record. Guitarist Peter Buck described the record to Mojo in 2003 as “a snapshot of us in our 24-year-old nervous breakdowns”. Given the context, it’s no wonder that during the album’s promotional duties singer Michael Stipe took to massacring his hair, crafting it first into a monk’s tonsure, followed by a bizarre egg yolk-dyed yellow hairdo that enhanced the fatigued expression plainly visible on his face back then.
Instead of using the change of producers to reconfigure its approach, R.E.M. sought refuge in the familiar. Recording outside of the American South for the first time, R.E.M. imbued Fables of the Reconstruction with the spirit of its place of origin. What largely set early alt-rock bands like R.E.M. apart from the punk and post-punk movements with which they coexisted was how they rebelled against the present by signifying sounds and iconography from the pre-punk past, albeit in a recontexualized, postmodern fashion. In R.E.M.’s case, this tendency had been manifested in its early work by Peter Buck’s Byrdsian guitar jangle and in the band’s vague rural mystique, one that was provincial without being cliché. Fables of the Reconstruction delved further into the past than the band had ever journeyed before, conjuring up the spirit of a mythical South of nebulous antiquity as envisioned by the group -- imagine a post-American Civil War South as if it had access to records made a century later -- through a combination of potent musical signifiers (banjos and slower country music-inspired tempos matched up with Buck’s ever-present jangle) and Michael Stipe’s fascination with the storytelling tradition of the region. From its connotation-heavy title to its timbres, Fables of the Reconstruction becomes a record about the pervading sense of place, one where listeners can practically hear the Southern Crescent railroad line chug along, feel the warm Georgia air, and see endless rolling fields of native agriculture as the band plays.
Listeners can bear witness on this album to a major step in Stipe’s development as a lyricist. While still rooted in the oblique mumbles of past compositions, the songs on Fables of the Reconstruction constituted Stipe’s admitted first attempts at narrative writing. Stipe told NME in 1988 that the album was “pretty much my version of the storytelling tradition. Me playing the Brothers Grimm or Aesop.” Fables is loaded with all sorts of local eccentric characters that give the South its unique character, including dog kidnappers (“Old Man Kensey”), used car salesmen (the banjo-laden country-fied closer “Wendell Gee”), train conductors (“Driver 8”), and crazy old coots who divided their homes in two (“Life and How to Live It”). Stipe proves his mettle as a lyricist by being able to match his narrative fascinations with strong descriptive snippets of the everyday mundane, making lines like “I saw a treehouse on the outskirts of the farm / The power lines have floaters so the airplanes won’t get snagged” from “Driver 8” function as pure poetry.
Although this head-first immersion into Southern iconography benefited Stipe’s lyricism, it trapped the rest of the band in a musical cul de sac. In particular, Peter Buck is stuck on one of two settings for much of the album: languid midtempo folksy jangle or driving moderately fast jangle. Buck’s playing on Fables is adept and never boring, but the guitarist’s constant reliance on his trademark technique threatens to devolve into self-parody by album’s end. Loaded with one janglefest after another, Fables becomes R.E.M.-squared, a record where the group’s stylistic tics are amplified into an overwhelming uniformity that really does become too much of a previously good thing. Nothing demonstrates this problem better than the remarkable similarity between the verses of “Maps and Legends” and “Kohoutek”. Trapped by its provincial vision and its cloistered rejection of modernity, the only exits the band provides are moody Anglophilia (the Gang of Four-inspired “Feeling Gravitys Pull”) and jokey irreverence (the weak white funk single “Cant Get There from Here”, which grows more embarrassing with each passing year), both of which exist at jarring right angles to the album’s established tone.
Despite its stylistic limitations, Fables of the Reconstruction has its share of cuts that rank highly in the R.E.M. songbook. The atmospheric “Feeling Gravitys Pull” stands apart from the rest of the album in the way that its dissonant, clanging guitar riff has more in common with gloomy British post-punk than with any vision of sun-baked Americana. An atypical choice for an opening track, “Feeling Gravitys Pull” justifies its prominence in the record’s track listing in the way it swells upward as it reaches the chorus, ascending in a heavenly manner as a dreamlike Stipe softly sings, “When the light is mine / I felt gravity pull onto my eye / Holding my head straight / This is the easiest task I’ve ever had to do” before dropping back down into the darkness. “Life and How to Live It” careens with wild energy, threatening to go completely off the rails near the end only to make it to its conclusion safely. “Driver 8” is quite possibly the definitive encapsulation of the classic R.E.M. sound, compacting the album’s iconographical obsessions into a punchy minor-key number topped with one of Buck’s best riffs. Really, aside from the thin, hazy production (Joe Boyd was stymied by the fact that the band didn’t want any one element of the mix emphasized over the other, and despite two tries could not produce a mix of the album he found satisfactory), Fables is mainly hampered by its ill-conceived running order, which lacks flow and gives the record a stifling conformity when taken as a whole. Unsurprisingly, the best songs from Fables have always worked better when incorporated into assorted R.E.M. compilations.
Notably, Capitol’s 25th anniversary two-CD reissue of Fables of the Reconstruction attempts to address the production issues via the remastering process (it’s not like anyone is going to rejigger the track list at this point, so there’s no point in harping further about it). Addressing Boyd’s concerns about the lack of a dominant element in the mix, Buck’s guitar and Mike Mills’ bass have had their volumes increased. Unfortunately, poor Bill Berry’s drums remain relegated to the background, ensuring that the whole affair remains R.E.M.’s most dated production from the 1980s
In addition to the newly remastered album, the anniversary set includes a collection of demos recorded back home in Athens on the second disc, deluxe lift-top packaging, a full-size poster, and four postcards. The demos lack the mixing deficiencies of the finished album, but listeners should keep in mind the second disc isn’t “Fables as it should have sounded” by any stretch, as these recordings audibly depict works-in-progress. For example, it’s impossible to envision the clumsy “Driver 8” demo supplanting the final recording any time soon. Diehard fans will note the inclusion of the previously-unreleased “Throw Those Trolls Away”. Like many of the cuts from Fables, it’s a fine enough composition, but its upbeat jangle template marks it as interchangeable R.E.M. of the period.
Fables of the Reconstruction sounds like some half-remembered legend from a distant past. It’s great to get lost in on a track-by-track basis, but it’s also kind of dull if listened to in one sitting. Here we have a band that is overworked and grasping with the problem of how to expand upon what it has established. That R.E.M. made music as good as this under the circumstances is laudable. However, the band’s followup Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) would demonstrate what a reinvigorated, newly politicized R.E.M. interested in engaging with contemporary concerns was capable of, acting as a creative second wind that would set the quartet on the path to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world within a decade. Contrasted with that record and the landmarks released beforehand, Fables simply doesn’t measure up. Despite the legend surrounding the group’s early material, Fables of the Reconstruction isn’t one of R.E.M.’s classics. It’s merely a fascinating look at one of the most important rock bands of the last 30 years catching its breath before embarking on greater triumphs.