Whereas Reckoning was a slight step towards the more melodically and lyrically direct R.E.M. that everyone knows, Fables of the Reconstruction is a return to the rural atmosphere of Murmur: less song-centric and more groove-centric; less to do about rain and more to do about walking around after the rain, inhaling that ineffable scent and making your way home. Like a lot of other people, I’ve always assumed Fables to be R.E.M.’s weakest album between Chronic Town and Document, nothing more than a carrying case for “Driver 8,” but oh, George – what a fool I’ve been!
Of course, “Driver 8” is the best song here, but if it sounds like the only good song here, that’s simply because both the riff and words are more direct than any other song here. Though Peter Buck is by and large doing the same thing he’s been doing for a few years now – switching between arpeggiated riffs and full-bodied strums of the Em and Am variety – there’s no question about “Driver 8” as a rock song whereas a lot of their other works (both here and previously) could be better categorized as folk-rock. And the opening riff might be his best, or at least, his most direct: ringing through like a train’s whistle, breaking down the doors of the contemplative R.E.M. that was and foreshadowing the bracing anthems that’ll appear on Lifes Rich Pageant-onwards. (The fact that he devotes two measures as an “answer” to the riff is testament to his greatness as a guitarist at this point in time; you won’t hear detail like that in his work in the 90s and beyond.) Meanwhile, Michael Stipe’s choruses strike gold, sung clearly without being needless projected, and like a lot of his lyrics from the songs in the 80s, sad but optimistic or vice versa, capping off the choruses with the tired “We’ve been on this shift too long” (or “shit” or “ship,” depending on what you hear) or “We can reach our destination” that’s answered by the whispered “But we’re still a ways away.” And throughout the choruses, Mike Mills adds drunken backing vocals that just add to the sadness, like he’s ready to give up at any point in time, but Michael Stipe keeps goading him to keep on. Easily ranks as one of their best songs, if not the best.
But there’s so much more to the album that just “Driver 8” as numerous relistens have taught me. Opener “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” contrasts the band’s creepiest riff and Stipe’s lyrical gravitas with the song’s sunny choruses, where Bill Berry’s slow creep of a drum ceases and Stipe’s melody becomes clearest and Buck begins arpeggiating. “Life and How to Live It” has a bite that sounds more like “Teenage Riot” than any other R.E.M. song, and Michael Stipe’s “Listen to the holler!”, with the last word stretched out until it’s incomprehensible and forcing you to listen harder, predates Document’s “Welcome to the Occupation”’s “Listen to me,” which is comparatively forced instead of forceful. “Can’t Get There From Here” might be their most ambitious song yet, with Peter Buck’s strumming approximating Southern – these songs are all Southern, either sonically or lyrically – funk as best it can and Michael Stipe singing his words throatier than ever before, his trademark mumble further obscured by chewing tobacco in his mouth and a blade of grass between his lips. Key moment to listen for: Mike Mills’ bass fill between 0:42 and 0:44 that segues into the next verse. Another key moment to listen for: Mike Mills’ – at least I think it’s Mike Mills – yawned scream that leads into the choruses (similar magic happens throughout “Kohoutek”). And to top it off, the band adds horn drama in the last instance of the chorus as if everything they had done wasn’t enough.
Meanwhile, before this point in time, Stipe’s lyrics used to be about no one in particular (and thus, applicable to everyone by default); his songs never had subjects (much has been made about the fact that the pronoun “I” appears nowhere in Murmur). On Fables, his lyrics have become more specific resulting in the character creation a la Ray Davies of the bass-driven “Old Man Kensey” and the banjo-featuring “Wendell Gee.” They’re both sad stories: “Old Man Kensey” tells the tale of a man with extremely small career goals (“Old Man Kensey wants to be a sign painter”) that he can’t achieve because of a lack of skill (“First he’s got to learn to read”). Elsewhere, “Wendell Gee”’s lyrics are as obscure as ever, but they read to me about a tragic accident (“The wire turned to lizard skin / And when he climbed it sagged / There wasn’t even time to say / Goodbye to Wendell Gee”).
Sure, some of the songs don’t leave much of an impression. I’m particularly against “Green Grow the Rushes” whose riff during the chorus (first appearing at the 0:30 mark) sounds identical to the one that powers Reckoning’s “7 Chinese Bros,” just with a different (and less effective) ending. But the 1992 reissue (I don’t have the 2010 double disc reissue, though I’m sure it’s as unnecessary as some of the other double disc reissues of their other albums) comes with three b-sides from the era that are better than the b-sides packaged with Murmur or Reckoning: “Burning Hell” and “Bandwagon” are light-hearted parodies of rock and country respectively, with the latter featuring some of Stipe’s funniest vocals ever.
And R.E.M.’s cover of Pylon’s “Crazy” is one of their few good covers, partly because R.E.M. and Pylon have always shared similar blood (not just place of origin) and mostly because they decide to stick to the original as close as possible (whereas they veer from the source material on other covers). It’s true: their bridge is considerably less manic which means they don’t pull it off (Stipe hits those high notes, sure, but they sound awkward). But otherwise, this is just as good as the original: they deliver the psychedelic swirl of vocals in the verses and the catchy choruses with such natural ease that you’d think they were responsible for the tune in the first place.