R.E.M. :: Fables of the Reconstruction (Reissue)

As the last remnants of Summer began to burn off throughout the length of September, the stage was set for taking in the reissue of R.E.M.’s third LP, 1985’s Fables of The Reconstruction, as a whole. If context is indeed everything, then Fables is woolen, wood-smoke and that unmistakable crisping of Autumn air.

Twenty five years after its initial release, Fables continues to inhabit a curious place in the R.E.M. discography, which now includes fourteen full-length releases.   Perhaps ironically, as it was recorded in the UK, the LP feels the most inherently “Southern” of any of the groups output before or since. The cadence and inflection in Stipe’s vocals, the nuanced instrumentation, and the lyrical content—right down to its very title—all inhabit a space drifting in limbo somewhere between Wise Blood and Sling Blade. This is non-linear, stream of consciousness, storytelling and Fables is a tale told of a South that in many ways no longer exists…if it ever did at all.

The cast of characters range from Stipe’s own psyche to the eccentric poets and artists that peppered the band’s time spent in the deep South, most notably Howard Finster.   We find R.E.M. at a stage in their career in which they had been writing, recording and, very significantly, touring at a non-stop pace since the release of the Chronic Town ep. It is the touring, the time spent outside of Athens, that ostensibly colors Fables worldview, for when we leave home we tend to, if not romanticize it, certainly think about it. Subconsciously or not Fables is, both thematically and aesthetically, a reflection of where the band came from, warts and all.

The first reissue I purchased of Fables (the 1992 IRS Vintage Years edition) bookended the LP with five b-sides (three studio tracks and two live) all of which were later comped. This new 2010 “deluxe reissue” is dolled up in a much more grand fashion packaged in a cardboard box with era-appropriate photos and notes by Peter Buck. Disc two houses the entirety of the Athens Demos including “Throw Those Trolls Away,” a track which is seeing the light of day for the first time. These demos present the songs on Fables in their embryonic form just prior to the London sessions that would yield the forthcoming LP.

While certainly not their most commercially or critically adored, Fables of the Reconstruction continues to remain one of my favorite albums by the band. The vibe is weird, dark and murky in a gothic sense R.E.M. would soon move away from forever. It is also the first album of theirs I had on vinyl; scored twenty years ago as a teenager in Atlanta at a garage sale for a quarter. Hearing this strange, spooky, Americana spinning on those etched grooves, by a band 60 miles north of my hometown, made me the fan I am today. And more.

R.E.M. :: Old Man Kensey — June 9, 1984 Passaic, NJ

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16 thoughts on “R.E.M. :: Fables of the Reconstruction (Reissue)

  1. Nice post. I also love this album, particularly Feeling Gravity’s Pull, which is probably one of the weirder songs they ever recorded.

  2. Thanks for this little tribute to the album that changed music for me forever! I’d like to share my story about Fables

    In July, 1985 my family was on a vacation in California. I was 15. We visited Los Angeles for part of a day and I heard “Can’t Get There From Here” played on a radio station. I assume the station was KCRW. I was so moved by the song that I immediately commited to memory the name of the band so I could buy the tape!

    I had been looking for new and different music to listen to, and the small town in Iowa I was from didn’t even get MTV and all we had access to was Top 40 and AOR stations. I had been getting into metal a little bit thanks to bands like The Scorpions, Quiet Riot, Def Leppard, Ratt and Van Halen, but I still had a desire to find something “new.”

    I found some music store in a mall in San Diego and they had Fables of the Reconstruction in stock. It would have been released in June with “Can’t Get There From Here” being the lead single.

    The cover art was unique and mysterious and the music was wonderfully obscure and edgy to me. Even from the opening dissonant guitar work on “Feeling Gravities Pull” I knew I had stumbled upon something that would change everything for me. We listened to that cassette a lot and my dad was even getting into it mentioning the Byrds while we tried to decode the music.

    I’ve heard that R.E.M. doesn’t really like this album and looking over the wiki article on it, I can see that this album would represent some grey times for the band as the sessions in the UK far from home left the band displaced and it nearly caused a break up. This– compounded by the label’s expectations that this would be the album to take the band to the next level in popularity and ultimately failing would cause the band to retreat the advance and regroup for Lifes Rich Pageant

    Returning from vacation, I desperately tried to find more music that sounded like this. I talked to people who worked at record stores to get advice. Sometimes they led me to more music that would expand my tastes, and other times not. The idea that just because someone who purports to like R.E.M. and another band means I would like the other band is a dangerous fallacy in logic. To this day, I cannot appreciate Skinny Puppy, and boy was I shocked to pop in that tape expecting more jangly Southern goodness and was instead subjected to some industrial!

    I think that I found R.E.M. about the time I was supposed to. By the time I got to college in fall of 1987 R.E.M. could about do no wrong (well, they were booed off the stage when I saw them in October when they played “The One I Love”, but that is another story)– and I was prepared to meet the hipsters who would introduce me to many other bands that I continue to love today (Camper Van Beethoven, Pylon, Bob Mould, The Cure, The Smiths).

    I started to drift away from R.E.M. in the late 90’s like a lot of people did, I suppose. I’m not even sure that I have every release following Automatic for the People. But, listening to the new Tired Pony release with its relation to R.E.M. makes me hopeful for a band ready to not just return to its roots, but a band ready to challenge listeners again while staying true to its roots.

  3. Bought the reissue as soon as it came out. Love this LP/CD/Set of mp3’s, whatever it’s called these days. Pre-Green R.E.M. is some of my all-time favorite music. The latest live CD is pretty darn good as well.

    The band is supposed to have a new CD out in the spring and hopefully they will tour. A great sounding band live.

  4. “Driver 8” is still Stipe’s perfect crystallization of the South. Dead on poetry, that. Also, let’s not forget: VIVA R.E.M. on RockBand! Just tell me you don’t wanna sing “These Days.”

  5. Any words on the fidelity improvement? I thought that the difference between my original CD release of Murmur, and the subsequent reissue, was jaw-dropping.

    Fables has always been that polarizing REM record, and I always thought that perhaps a big reason for that was the production. It’s very murky…part of that was the band itself (and their mood at the time, which was…dark to say the least), but I’m so curious to hear what people think of the quality difference. Fables needs it, to my ears, much like Exile on Main St needed it….and Weezer’s Blue Album, didn’t.

    Anyway, with a band like REM its hard to say that “this is my favorite album,” but on any given day, Fables might be the one for me. My band used to cover “Driver 8” and “Kohoutek” when we just started out. I can still make my singer crack up just by playing the opening riff to “Feeling Gravities Pull,” a riff that, come to think of it, sort of sums up the entire feel of the record.

    A trip to the record store is order. Between this and the surprisingly good new B&S record, it’s a good few weeks.

  6. Oh, and one more thing, Michael (above)…..if you don’t know REM’s post Automatic output that well, I highly suggest you listen (or re-listen) to New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

    For my money, it’s the last relevant album the band made (maybe b/c it’s the last one with Berry), and frankly, it’s by far the most underrated in their catalogue. With one or two exceptions, every song is excellent, and it contains a bit of the “mythology” angle REM is go good at (it was prinicpally recorded on the road, and many songs are essentially live to tape during soundchecks).

  7. Fables was always my favorite REM album, and I always hoped one day they’d return to that darker Southern Gothic sound. They never did, but thankfully My Morning Jacket eventually came along to take up where Fables left off, in my opinion.

  8. Ditto on New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Excellent album and too quickly ignored. I would also like to give props to Up which has some Amazing Moments and Songs on it as well. A post-Up defense would certainly have its work cut out for it. Yikes.

  9. I saw the show at Passaic, NJ. 2nd time seeing them. It was the MTV Folk Influences filming. R.E.M. played with John Sebastian for a couple of songs and Roger McGuinn as well. Wish they would release it on DVD.

  10. Love this album! Feels like R.E.M. are doing a re-issue every other week at the moment though. I own think I own something of there’s on everything except 8track. CD’s, Digipaks, DVDA’s, Vinyl, Tape, VHS, DVD etc…

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