This album got me to admit that, actually, I don’t hate R.E.M. This is a significant achievement. For whatever reason, I had never got the love that many (especially men in their early twenties) seem to feel for the Athens trio. I’ve never really cared for Stipe’s voice, in particular; it’s nasal and buzzing, and that doesn’t work so well when trying to write beautiful pop songs.
Fables Of The Reconstruction (or, possibly, Reconstruction Of The Fables; both titles are used interchangeably and simultaneously) is not an album full of beautiful pop songs, however. It’s rough around the edges and growly in the middle, deeply influenced by bluegrass and other quintessentially American musical genres, with a host of guest musicians and new instruments. As its title suggests, Fables is concerned chiefly with the folklore and community memory of the American South (note for non-Statesians: the Reconstruction was a period of time following the Civil War during which the Confederate states struggled to rebuild themselves with their economy in tatters).
Accordingly, the sound of Fables is steel-string, harmonic, ethereal: it walks a fine line between descending into rote repetition of Southern music and only vaguely name-checking it. There are no mandolins on the album; this definitely isn’t a repeat of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. At the same time, there are clear, definite links to that era: several songs reference trains, their drivers and the countryside they pass through; two tracks,”Life And How To Live It” and “Old Man Kensey,” reference the sort of small-town characters you’d expect to find in tiny towns cut off from the rest of the world and steeped in poverty. The seventh song on the album, in deference to an old church song, is titled “Green Grow The Rushes.”
The big single from Fables was the ride-the-rails anthem “Driver 8”:
Fables was released in 1985 and, in the autumn of that year, apparently you couldn’t swing an impenetrable calc textbook without hitting someone who was listening to “Driver 8” at full volume.
“Cant Get There From Here” (punctuation deliberate) has a storming horn chorus and a title taken from an old rural American expression (though I have to say that we use it up North, too).
I’ve deliberately not included the official music video for this song, partly because it is confusing as hell, but also because this song deserves your undivided attention. The wordplay is marvellous; at one point Stipe goads a businessman-out-of towner character by rattling off, “Come on now, Mr City-wide/hypnotized, suit-and-tie!/ Gentlemen, testify!” Plus you can dance the hell out of it. The video is fun and really plays up the dichotomy between city and countryside, but give it a listen first.
One interesting side-fact about Fables Of The Reconstruction is that, for a long time, R.E.M. hated it. Seriously, for a long time they would only talk about the album in terms of how much they hated making it and how all the songs on it were terrible. It’s true that the album was recorded in London during a rainy winter and they were all terribly homesick, but it’s really too bad that the experience ended up colouring their perception of the album so badly. Fables is at its core an incredibly strong collection of music and everything else that orbits around it – the band’s subsequent artistic turns, the way they got kind of insufferable, the release of Automatic For The People in 1992* that changed the entire game – all these things are completely irrelevant. As far as I’m concerned, Fables is simply R.E.M. at their absolute, shining best. Bear in mind that Fables was only R.E.M.’s third album, and they were still settling down into their “sound”; this is all well before “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It,” “Everybody Hurts,” even “Orange Crush.” This was before they descended into political commentary on Document and Stipe became the punchline of a Denis Leary routine. This is the music that made R.E.M. and the music that we still think about when we think about how good they were.
I’ll leave you with the beautiful, sad “Wendell Gee,” the last song on the album and one which deserves a place on most top-10 lists I can think of, except possibly those that involve hair metal. It’s certainly the only song I can think of which can be described using the words “stunningly good banjo solo.”
(This video is actually the full album; I’ve clipped to the beginning of Wendell Gee. If you want to hear the whole album, play this video from the beginning. Then go buy it.)
* I should note here that I am one of approximately six people on the planet who hates this album. I may not be right. But I hate it anyway.