As the ambiguous title suggests, R.E.M.’s third studio effort is difficult to place and may not make pleasant listening for fans of the band’s first two wonderful albums expecting to hear something similar. While Peter Buck’s characteristic jangly guitar is retained on songs such as “Maps & Legends” and “Driver 8,” Fables is an album that sees the foursome experimenting both lyrically and instrumentally, containing songs with more obvious lyrics and a more layered sound.
This change can be heard immediately in the sudden opening guitar throngs of “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” which are then followed by the beautiful intertwining of Michael Stipe and Mike Mills’ voices – a combination which provided highlights on the band’s previous albums and continues to do so. New sounds for the band continue to manifest themselves on the album; the partnership of a jazzy guitar riff and a first use of a brass section for the band make “Can’t Get There From Here” one of the most impressive songs on the album and the final, banjo-led song, a slow ballad about an eccentric individual “Wendell Gee” provides a beautiful end to an eccentric album.
With references to both the Reconstruction period in America and the literary process of deconstruction in the title, the band’s lyrics on Fables are much more obvious influences than on Murmur and Reckoning. Pastoral imagery of steam engines in “Driver 8” and “the compass [that] points the workers home” on arguably the best song on the album, “Green Grow The Rushes,” show the influence of the landscape of the American South, while the slow ballads of “Old Man Kensey” and “Wendell Gee” show the band addressing the myth and legend of the period. This album also sees the band’s first song that is openly about a relationship in “Kohoutek.” However there are also songs focusing on old themes for the band; on “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” Stipe describes falling asleep while reading, reflecting on the power of art. This theme is continued on the impressive “Life And How To Live It” showing how art is subjective and open to different interpretations from different people.
Fables of the Reconstruction is a tough album to get into and may take several listens to appreciate it fully. It sees the band tackle many different themes and ideas and create changes to their sound and writing techniques, while retaining their most compelling traits: their poetic and enigmatic lyrics and the harmonies of Stipe’s voice with Mills’. The band was aware they had achieved something, but were just as aware that they had to move on from this period to achieve greater things.
Much like the innocence of rural townships before the reconstruction of the southern states, R.E.M.’s innocence as a new band has gone. Fables of the Reconstruction says goodbye to the simple life of a college band, and hello to the complexities of being a full-time touring band and the challenges they would face, through a series of challenging and enjoyable songs.Powered by Sidelines