Setting out to make a deliberate break from the recording and overall style of their first two albums, the landmark one-two punch of Murmur and Reckoning, R.E.M. travelled to England to record with producer Joe Boyd, best known for his work with folk-rock acts like Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, and Kate & Anna McGarrigle. The recording sessions with Boyd were legendarily tense, and that air of frayed nerves, exhaustion, and dissatisfaction added to the overall sound of the band’s third album, Fables of the Reconstruction. In its 25th Anniversary re-release edition, Peter Buck’s electric guitar and Mike Mills’s bass figure more prominently in the mixes than on the original recording, heightening that sense of tension and displacement, an aesthetic choice that serves to elevate what is perhaps the most unjustly maligned of R.E.M.‘s pre-Warner Bros. albums.
Fables of the Reconstruction is a key entry in R.E.M.‘s catalogue, since it marked the first time that frontman Michael Stipe abandoned his purely impressionistic lyrical style with the purpose of writing songs that were “about” something. That isn’t to say that the album is an easier or more accessible effort than its predecessors, but that it found Stipe experimenting, with often phenomenal results, with more conventional song structures and narratives. Because of this change, motifs that would become some of the band’s trademarks over the course of their career first emerged here. Stipe’s fascination with fugue states and dream logic rivals that of David Lynch, and it informs “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” one of the finest songs in the band’s rich catalogue. “Gravity” uses vivid, evocative imagery without recalling the deadly dull experience of having someone try to describe a dream. “Green Grow the Rushes,” with its references to “amber waves of grain,” is an indictment of the treatment of Mexican farm workers living in the United States. It serves as a harbinger of the more explicitly political songs that Stipe would write in later years, and it finds renewed relevance upon re-release just months after the passing of Arizona’s SB 1070.
Thematically, Fables of the Reconstruction is one of R.E.M.‘s most cohesive album, drawing heavily from Southern iconography and folklore. Bands like Drive-By Truckers have, in recent years, taken up the cause of reconstructing and deconstructing the mythology of the modern South, but R.E.M.‘s take on the subject is, unsurprisingly, far less literal. Southern myths are often preoccupied with mysterious, hermit-like older men, and many such characters serve either as protagonists or sources of inspiration on the album. “Life and How to Live It” was famously inspired by the life story of Brev Mekis, a schizophrenic man from the band’s native Athens, GA, who bifurcated his home into two completely distinct dwellings. “Maps and Legends” is a complex tribute to Reverend Howard Finster, one of the most famous figures in the “outsider art” movement. What makes Fables of the Reconstruction such a rich, deeply rewarding work is that it isn’t simply a retelling of these myths or a hagiography for these men, it’s that the album is a pointed, thoughtful consideration of what these stories mean and, specifically, of how Stipe perceives them.
That perspective makes the album a work of genuine cultural criticism, and an invaluable one at that. It’s all too rare for the popular media to approach topics that are uniquely Southern with the kind of insight and consideration that Stipe and the band demonstrate throughout Fables of the Reconstruction. If it isn’t a full-on ethnographic study in the way that Patty Loveless’s Mountain Soul is, or an attempt at creating new myths in the way that the Truckers’s A Blessing and a Curse is, it’s nonetheless a refreshing break from convention to hear an album that treats life in the South as something of value.
Despite a few misfires (closer “Wendell Gee” doesn’t work in either its original form or the demo recording included in the re-release’s bonus disc, and “Kohoutek” is only really notable for being one of Stipe’s first songs about a romantic relationship), Fables of the Reconstruction is, on a song-for-song basis, one of R.E.M.‘s strongest collections. That the band nearly called it quits during its recording only adds to its mystique and makes it all the more impressive an achievement. It’s an album made about, by, and for outsiders, and it retains that spirit today, even with the knowledge of how big a band R.E.M. would eventually become. With this thoughtfully remastered anniversary edition, Fables of the Reconstruction should finally earn the reputation it has long deserved.