Fables of the Reconstruction

Fables of the Reconstruction

By 1985, you couldn’t swing a mic stand without hitting a band that had a bright, chiming guitar sound. R.E.M. wasn’t a mainstream act yet, but the band was huge in the college radio terrarium, spawning a generation of janglers all across the country, from California (Wire Train) to Connecticut (Miracle Legion) to R.E.M.’s own hometown of Athens, Georgia (Dreams So Real). The Velvet Underground may be the most influential American rock band of all time, but it took years for the Velvets’ sound to take root; with R.E.M., it was almost instantaneous. So for the band’s third album, released in 1985, R.E.M. changed its sound—with some assistance from producer Joe Boyd, whose work with such late-1960s and early-1970s luminaries as Nick Drake and Fairport Convention had helped define the sophisticated outer reaches of folk-rock. The members of R.E.M. didn’t hide this new sound at the end of Fables of the Reconstruction—instead, they led off with it. “Feeling Gravitys Pull” is a minor-key tilt-a-whirl of a song, with Twilight Zone harmonics from guitarist Peter Buck, a Gothic string arrangement of violins and cello, and a syrupy coating of disorientation and imbalance. Singer Michael Stipe issues a warning the band sustains throughout the album: “Time and distance are out of place here,” he sings, dragging out the last syllable of the phrase to accentuate his point. Stipe fills his lyrics with images of movement—there are ships, trains, planes, compasses, maps, comets, and stop lights—but the songs travel without ever arriving anywhere. The title of “Can’t Get There From Here”—a giddy, nearly funky song with a punctuating horn arrangement and Stipe’s loose, preacherly vocals—makes that evident. “Home is a long way away,” he adds a few songs later, in the melancholy ballad “Good Advices.” There was a good amount of familiar R.E.M. moves on Fables of the Reconstruction, including Buck’s guitar licks in “Green Grow the Rushes,” the floating chorus of “Maps and Legends,” and the headlong tempos played by bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry in “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” and “Life and How to Live It.” But the frequent use of dissonance stamps it as a challenging departure from the sound the group had so gracefully trademarked. “It’s a personal favorite and I’m really proud of how strange [the album] is,” Buck later said.

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