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Music Review: R.E.M. – Fables of the Reconstruction

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Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M.'s third album, was released in 1985. It is definitely the most overlooked gem in their catalog. Many think R.E.M. begins and ends at "Losing My Religion," "Everybody Hurts," and "It's the End of the World as We Know It." Well, I'm here to tell you these songs are not their beginning and end. There is so much more to this wonderful, playful, jangly, proto-alternative band than a few catchy tunes in the late eighties/early nineties.

Interestingly, all these popular tunes were released years after R.E.M. recorded their very best music. They had their best output during the early eighties. But all too often, this period of their history is glazed over by the almighty Automatic for the People released in 1992.

I say this is a travesty. I find the lack of attention Fables of the Reconstruction receives somewhat peculiar. Sure, it is not as upbeat-sounding as most of their other music, and it is definitely a departure from anything else they have attempted.

But I love this departure. Fables is R.E.M. getting in touch with their Southern roots more so than anything else they have ever recorded. It is where they find part of their voice, the thing that makes them who they are.

Though they are southern, they are not country. But their Southern flavor is completely unrestrained in Fables and goes haywire. The gritty sound of southern blues is juxtaposed with a light, alternative feel. To me, this is heaven. Maybe that is a slight exaggeration. But still, this must be one of my all time favorite albums.

Their trademark jangly pop is combined with the dark legends and myths of the American south. This is really cool and ultimately unique combination. You cannot find a record like Fables by any other band, or at least any band as mainstream as R.E.M.

And they pull it off masterfully. Fables of the Reconstruction is the culmination of the Holy Trinity of R.E.M.'s first three albums, and what a culmination it is. Starting with the sparse, plucking electric guitar and joining strings in the opening track "Feeling Gravity's Pull," the listener is instantly sucked into the moody spell conjured by Michael Stripe's slurring and cryptic lyrics, oozing pure Southern mythos.

Track three, "Driver 8," is a catchy and dark tune about God knows what. And it has a harmonica, as many other songs on the album do, perfecting the folksy feel unique to this album. Other songs worthy of mentions include "Can't Get There From Here," "Maps and Legends," "Green Grow the Rushes," and "Wendell Gee." But really, they are all wonderful.

Fans of R.E.M. who have not picked up this album need to first knock their heads against the wall. After that, they need to get up, purchase this album, and listen to it at least six times in a row. Non-fans should probably start with either a singles CD or Automatic for the People, just to get a taste of their catchier work.

You might also like R.E.M. if you like the Pixies, the Talking Heads, The Cranberries, Joy Division, or any other 1980s alternative act. Heck, I'll even throw in Radiohead fans who want a feel of that band's inspiration. But chances are that if you already listen to these bands than you are already duly familiar with the Athens, Georgia jangle-rock band.

Fables of the Reconstruction, often ignored by critics as the oddball out in R.E.M.'s otherwise spotless early discography, is actually their greatest masterpiece. It is the perfect culmination of their guitars and southern roots. It is a bit raw and the production might not be up to snuff in some people's books, but the production lends itself to the raw quality of the album.

People might say the dark and brooding Automatic for the People is R.E.M.'s best. Some might pick the mysterious Murmur, and others the festive Life's Rich Pageant. But I, always and forever, stand proudly by the folksy mythology of Fables of the Reconstruction. Five out of five stars.

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About Kyle West

  • JC Mosquito

    Yeah, this is my least favorite of REM’s classic IRS catalog. I think it’s because the album seems to be so lyrically deep, yet you can’t make out most of it because of the murky mix and Stipe’s vocal delivery. Maybe I should go back and run it again – after all, it took me about two or three years to like Automatic for the People.

  • http://scottpeterson.typepad.com/ scott

    I think Murmur, Document and Automatic are their three best albums, but Fables is just behind, and is an absolutely stunning collection, gorgeous, dark and mysterious. As for why it’s so underrated, I think the band’s own lack of regard for the album is a major component. But there is nothing else in their oeuvre—or anyone else’s—quite like it. I don’t think it’s their best, but it may be my favorite. And “Feeling Gravitys Pull” is as remarkable an opener, and “Wendell Gee” as perfect a closer, as any they ever released.

  • Kyle

    I love just about everything R.E.M. has done, at least up to Automatic for the People. Maybe the reason I love Fables so much is just for how unique it us, and the fact I’ve listened to Murmur and Automatic so much that they sort of just lost their effect on me.

  • Peter

    I agree completely with your analysis. Fables is a timeless ageless classic and by far my favourite R.E.M. album. The weird dark territory that Stipe explores lyrically here was amazing to me the first time I heard it and still is just shy of 25 years on from its recording.

    It also features one of my favourite political songs by any band, Green Grow the Rushes, which also happens to feature some of Buck’s most brittle, spidery, yet downright beautiful and haunting guitar work. The song like the album is an exercise in understated, yet clearly genius, craftsmanship.

    Not that its my favourite song on the album, in fact I don’t have one. The work should be listened to in its entirety, it’s the only way to fully appreciate the genius cohesive whole.

    What makes it a masterpiece for me, is the fact that no matter how often I re-listen to it, the album never wears on me. There are so many songs on this album unlike anything recorded by R.E.M. in the years before or sadly since.

    People only au fait with the band’s later work often dismiss them as too mainstream and polished, my reply is always the same – Fables.

  • Nick

    As a huge REM fan since virtually the beginning i have to contest this notion that the band’s best work is the early stuff. Such a lazy, cliched analysis to my mind. Something like ‘new adventures in hi-fi’ is easily the equal of the excellent early records. There are moments on all the post-automatic albums (yes, even Around the Sun!!) which are beautiful, unexpected and wonderful. So-called ‘return to form’ Accelerate was a blast (and made for a blistering live show) but i look forward to a possibly more rounded album next time out.

    As for Fables, its not up there amongst my very favourites (Reckoning and New Adventures) but it’s still a dark, mysterious beast which deserves the reappraisal the re-release has given it.