1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction has always held a somewhat dubious reputation in the R.E.M. back catalogue: down through the years, the band have frequently bad-mouthed it in interviews, while critics and fans alike bemoaned its murky production and supposedly gloomy atmosphere. The band’s ambivalence towards the album has much to do with the circumstances of its recording in London: intra-band tensions, slight difficulties with their choice of producer (Joe Boyd, who had previously worked with artists like Nick Drake and Fairport Convention), record company pressure and a harsh English winter contributed to a fraught environment; it’s understood that this was the closest the four-piece came to splitting up. As for its lukewarm reception, for many the album seemed deliberately elusive and difficult in comparison to its acclaimed predecessors Murmur and Reckoning.
Yet its reputation can be deceptive. There’s a sizeable contingent of R.E.M. fans who regard Fables as one of the finest works, if not the best, of their career. I’m going to go right ahead and plant my flag in that camp: this remains an utterly superb album – strange, otherworldly and evocative, it creates a fascinating sonic and thematic landscape that reveals more and more as you persist with it.
Beginning with the disorientating ‘Feeling’s Gravity Pull’, the record may be somewhat murky in sound, but it’s unpredictable and varied stylistically, taking in the weary, weather-beaten travelogue of ‘Driver 8’, the haunting folk-rock of ‘Maps and Legends’, the country waltz of ‘Wendell Gee’ and the frenetic post-punk of ‘Auctioneer (Another Engine)’. Lyrically, Michael Stipe was fascinated by the word-of-mouth legends and stories of the old South (as alluded to in the album’s title), painting portraits of eccentric characters such as the protagonists of ‘Old Man Kensey’ and ‘Life and How to Live It’. The album’s vision of old, weird Americana may be more romanticised fiction than reality, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling. It’s also got some of R.E.M.’s very best songs: ‘Life and How to Live It’ is as unhinged and thrilling as anything they did before or after; ‘Kohoutek’ is a massively underrated, spooked-sounding stream-of-consciousness; while the sublime pastoral strum of ‘Green Grow The Rushes’ features Peter Buck’s best ever guitar line in place of a chorus and their first – but far from last – politicised lyric.
The extra disc – titled The Athens Demos – on this re-issue features all eleven album tracks in demo form, as well as three that didn’t make the cut: ‘Hyena’ (which would feature on their next album, Lifes Rich Pageant), ‘Bandwagon’ and ‘Throw Those Trolls Away’ (which was later remodelled as ‘These Days’, also featuring on the next album). The demos are very listenable as these things go, and not solely for completists by any means – a much clearer-sounding ‘Kohoutek’ being particularly notable. But for all the grumbles about the production on the album proper, I’ve never had a problem with it: if anything, it serves the vibe of the album well, in the same way that Murmur’s production had added to its mystique.
Fables of the Reconstruction’s folk-rock sound, richly detailed aesthetic and sense of mystery marked the end of the first and most compelling phase of R.E.M.’s story: from here they would simplify things and take a more direct approach on succeeding albums Lifes Rich Pageant, Document and Green. While these were terrific albums, and while R.E.M. continued to create amazing music well into the next decade, something magical -that sense of Southern Gothic adventure and otherness that characterises this record – seemed lost in the transition. As divisive as this record is, I’m far from the only one who regards it as R.E.M.’s finest hour.