en: Fables of the Reconstruction [info]
Now into the fourth decade of their career, it's easy to forget the significance of R.E.M.'s music, especially the five albums released on IRS Records. Murmur, their seminal debut album, was released in 1983. Twenty-five years later, in 2008, a deluxe anniversary edition was brought out, newly remastered, with a bonus live concert. Similarly last year, to celebrate its quarter-century, their second album Reckoning was reissued with another live album. Presumably this will continue each year until their last album for IRS, Document, turns 25, by which time the series of 30th anniversary editions will have probably begun.
The remarkable thing is that Murmur, Reckoning and now, in 2010, Fables of the Reconstruction (or Reconstruction of the Fables - the cover was designed so that the title becomes an infinite, unending loop) sound not just old albums reborn, but like brand new ones. Part of that is down to the remastering - which makes Fables… sound bolder and crisper than it did before - but really, it's testament to the timeless nature of Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe's songwriting.
This third effort marked a change in direction for the band, who infused its 11 songs with dark, unsettling undertones. It begins with the metallic sheen of Feeling Gravity's Pull, the sound of a slow-motion apocalypse, an iron world rusting. Old Man Kensey extends that sense of impending doom, while Auctioneer (Another Engine) and Kohoutek are full of a nervous, jittery energy. Maps and Legends, Driver 8 and the hypnopompic lament of Wendell Gee recall the jangly guitars and slight country twang of those first two albums, but they still sound somewhat twisted and deranged. Overall, Fables is the embodiment of confusion, of minds and worlds unsure about their futures, a sense of foreboding intensified by Stipe's oblique, muddied lyrics.
This reissue comes with The Athens Demos, a second disc containing 14 cuts - including the full album in embryonic form, two other demos and one previously unreleased song. Although the versions here lack the dark magic of those on the album, there's an unnerving, lo-fi bleakness to these recordings which adds to their apocalyptic nihilism. If that wasn't enough, it all comes packaged in a deluxe mini boxset with new liner notes, postcards and a poster. A dark, dangerous but delightful record that's as good - if not better - than new.
Three albums into their career and R.E.M were about to hit a crisis. As with many bands, a lot of their new material was gleaned from a world-view shaped by endless touring. Such is the lot of a young band. The American landscape seeps into both Stipe's lyrics and the band's jangly, electric folk. With this in mind, it must have made perfect sense to enlist the help of uber-folk-rock producer, Joe Boyd; the man who produced classics by Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson. Yet Boyd, though an American, was an Anglophile since his relocation to these isles in the 1960s, and the two camps had trouble communicating in the studio. Also, by recording in the UK, the band became homesick and stranded in a grey London in the grip of a fierce winter. It was a long way from sunny Athens, Georgia. Thus Fables... was recorded under a cloud, with tensions threatening to tear them apart.
In the end, Fables... is a murky, oblique take on some kind of mythologised southern rhetoric; filled with trains, old men passing tales around campfires and earthy, rural dadaism. Compared to the previous two albums there is a distinct shift in instrumentation, banjos appear (Wendell Gee) as well as a rather misjudged brass section in Can't get There From Here. Stipe's vocals are so muddy as to make interpretation of what he, himself, termed 'meaningless' lyrics frustrating. What does a line like "When you greet a stranger, look at her hands" really mean? It's the surface sound of his voice that matters here. An eery droning moan and whine that summons up visions of journeys yet to be completed.
Boyd's production is willfully flat - Peter Buck's guitar is a has one setting: Byrdsian - and one suspects that Bill Berry hated this album so much because he has so little to do on it. It can become a little wearing and you can sense the dispirited nature of the band's playing. Yet somehow it all fits the material. It's the sound of a band determined to develop yet not quite finding their next direction. As such, Fables...is a crucial part of R.E.M's growth. Ironically - considering the band's subsequent career arc - at the time its college rock austerity made a startling contrast to the stadium filling bombast of U2 and their ilk. These days it sounds like exactly what it's title says...a fable, lost in time.