R.E.M. - Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) Review


Gen 28 2010, 3:39

I realized something as I listened to this record, R.E.M.'s third full length release, earlier today. It occurred to me as I am reminded right now, that I have been unsuccessfully trying to review this album my whole life. Ever had one of those albums that scared you as a kid?

Fables of the Reconstruction scared me.

Fables is the kind of album that gives you nightmares for the longest time...

...Makes you wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night; the harsh, dissonant question-mark guitar riff of Feeling Gravity's Pull ringing in your ears. Fables will play out in your mind over and over again not because it's catchy or clever or interesting at all but rather because it is the kind of record the likes of which you have never heard and will never hear again. The Fables induction period feels like being sick and thinking that you might not even make it out. This record may sound terrible on the first listen. It may sound terrible on the 100th listen. But there will come a time, maybe tomorrow, maybe ten years from now when notice how beautiful the vocal delivery on the bridge of "Feeling Gravity's Pull" is. And then you'll realize for the first time how lush the instrumentation is throughout. Those horns on Can't Get There from Here sound incredible! Maybe later you'll look deeper into the record to find that the lyrics to Wendell Gee are some of the saddest ever, without any of the sentimentality that stereotypical "sad songs" are so ripe with. You may realize after some persistence that Life and How to Live It is one of the best songs ever. Perhaps most clear is how beautiful Michael Stipe's voice sounds throughout. His delivery on Kohoutek is perhaps better than any other R.E.M. song to date. That's a wonderful song too. Frankly, you will eventually find that every one of these songs is a classic, or at least should be. You will appreciate Fables of the Reconstruction for what it most certainly is, that is to say, one of the absolute best albums ever. I kid you not; it took me that long to realize the genius of this record.

When this great cosmic reversal of opinion occurs, and it always occurs, you may find yourself wondering how in the world this is the least regarded album of the I.R.S. Years. Fables is an incredibly dense and opaque album, nearly impenetrable and inescapably brooding. The reason that even the most hardcore R.E.M. fans don't jump for joy proclaiming Fables as their crowning achievement is that nobody sticks around long enough. Growing up with an album like this in constant rotation makes you think, and after enough thinking this album suddenly works. And by god if it worked for me it will work for you.

My favorite record ever is Feelies' The Good Earth, produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and released one year after Fables of the Reconstruction. Though they never attained any mainstream popularity to speak of, the Feelies understood Fables and took it exactly one step further, blending into R.E.M.'s post-Civil War masterpiece images of wheat fields and pastures. Fans of the band may remember that R.E.M. themselves took much influence from the Feelies' debut, a record called Crazy Rhythms, the sound of which R.E.M. adapted to produce Murmur. Call the Good Earth some sort of universal payback if you will, but it speaks volumes to R.E.M. that their record could have directly influenced something so incredible. And as such, Fables is incredible.

I'm afraid I can't go into detail further regarding how the album sounds; describing it with words simply wouldn't do it justice. Perhaps the only way it can be described is through its concept, an ingenious on at that, and easy to appreciate simply because it is so immediately interesting. The album is aptly named "Fables of the Reconstruction", as it is in its entirety a collection of songs that serve as modern retellings of Reconstruction-era American myths and stories. The back side (or front side, depending on how you look at it) of the Vinyl art says "Reconstruction of The", whereas the front says "Fables of the", implying that the album is better seen as a verbal cycle, "Fables of the Reconstruction" or "Reconstruction of the Fables". In this way, it is R.E.M.'s only album composed completely of narratives, a first for known abstract lyricist Michael Stipe. It is fascinating to see Stipe take on this challenge for the first time, and he turns out to be very good at it. However, staying true to his trademark style, the narratives are often lyrically muddy and near-indecipherable, and require many listens to fully understand.But even if the future looks bleak, keep listening to this record and it will pay off in the end.

By the way, if anybody ever does get this album to "click" with them, I'd really like to talk to them about it. You know, historical context, subliminal lyrical messages and connotations, sonic texture and the like. I've found this is one of the most fascinating records to discuss.
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MusicBanter, Toribash Players, R.E.M.
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  • Naterogers

    I was surprised to read your comment about it not being anyone's favorite R.E.M. record, because I certainly consider it mine. There's just something about the aura of it...it bleeds a strange whirlwind of confusion and coherence. At the same time it's in no way chaotic. Your point about the ambiguity of the title made me realize that this album is the pinnacle of the band's "left up for interpretation" style of content. The whole record truly embodies a developed application of perspectivism...from the lyrics to the album artwork, nothing is definable but everything is clear...a great effect. Truly, I feel like this is the pinnacle of the band in many ways, and that's not an easy statement to make.

    Dic 1 2010, 10:06
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