Review Summary: R.E.M.'s first left turn is ambitious, compelling, and well-performed, but let down by some less-than-memorable deep cuts.
While there were some indications on Reckoning
that R.E.M. was getting just a little sick of their jangle-pop status quo, Fables of the Reconstruction
is the first real left turn in their discography. Perpetually underrated (and easy to skip over among their more beloved records of the era), Fables
is certainly a more difficult listen than the other IRS releases, pairing upbeat all-time classics with murky and challenging deep cuts that tend to conceptually bleed into each-other. That being said, the album is maybe their most thematically compelling, and superb performances by Mills and Buck in particular elevate songwriting that shows blemishes for the first time.
Opener “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” immediately sours Buck’s typical guitar arpeggios, tense with harmonics in the verses and ringing with menace backdropping Stipe’s “step up… step up…” refrain. While the song itself may not be one of the band’s better openers, the group always had a knack for setting the tone early, and “Gravity” lays the groundwork for a record filled with medium tempo minor-key bass-driven tracks. This is quickly validated by “Old Man Kensey,” one of many Stipe pieces here about an elderly outsider, which could be a slog if not for Mills’ steady backing vocals and Buck’s descending triplets. Buck, who had by this point established a unique playing style, takes a major step forward on Fables
, varying between his traditional jangling picking, atmospheric and imposing post-punk, and even Johnny Marr-style strumming on “Can’t Get There from Here.” His playing anchors many of the tracks that threaten to meander off the rails; that being said, the jangling arpeggios do function almost as a safety blanket by the end of the record. With no disrespect to Bill Berry, who turns in a consistently strong performance, Mike Mills is the other standout on here. Throughout R.E.M.’s discography there’s a direct positive relationship between how much Mills gets to do and record quality, and Fables is no different. His sunny harmonies make every song they touch more beautiful, from “Green Grow the Rushes” to the otherwise average closer “Wendell Gee.”
“Maps and Legends” is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of what this record aims at (and barely falls short) – the lyrics are mysterious but somehow in their vagueness paint a distinctly Southern picture, the tempo is patient but driven steadily by Buck, and the stunning chorus is perhaps the best Mills/Stipe collaboration until “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” The songs that directly follow it, “Driver 8” and “Life and How to Live it,” are even better, two of the best the band ever wrote. Oddly enough, they sound more comfortable in a best-of compilation than here. While both are lyrically tied to the themes of the record, instrumentally they have more in common with the material on Reckoning
. Nonetheless, their presence significantly elevates an album dotted with the band’s first unmemorable material; most will be hard-pressed to quite remember the tunes of songs like “Auctioneer” or “Good Advices” even after many listens.
Extracting “Driver 8” and “Life and How to Live It” does a disservice to Fables
’ ambition and thematic pull. While the songwriting is not as consistently strong here as on almost all of its IRS brothers, the performances and identity of this record are impressive in their own right. Whereas Reckoning
were excellent collections of tracks without a compelling through-line, Fables of the Reconstruction
is the opposite: a conceptually unified album unfortunately let down by a few unmemorable tracks.