It sounds like the act of creation in a lot of ways, each individual song tentatively creeping out into the light and then there’s that moment—in each song, mind you—where everything falls together and the song commits to whatever it is with confidence. —Patton Oswalt, on Fables Of The Reconstruction
Fables Of The Reconstruction isn’t my favorite R.E.M. record. I’ve warmed to it a lot in the last few years, but it’s probably the one I’ve played the least from R.E.M.’s “golden” era. But it was Fables—the band’s third LP, released in 1985, when it was still more than a year away from going gold for the first time—that brought me back to R.E.M. after I stopped listening for several years, and had given up on the band.
This is the upside of liking a band with a big catalog: Even for fans, there are albums that sneak up on you. Which is why, if I really love an artist, I try to get everything. Even if it’s a live double album from a late-period cash-in tour. Or a little-loved flop with a cruddy cover and bad ’80s production. Or an attempted “comeback” record rounded out by dance-club remixes of the greatest hits. Because you never know. The stuff you set aside and forget about is all that’s left when the music you love the most grows stale from over-use. These are the records that can make bands you grew up with sound like they did when you heard them the first time.
In Part 1 of Perfect Circle, I wrote that being a fan is a more socially acceptable version of having an imaginary friend. Which is true except for one crucial difference: You get to decide when your imaginary friend stops existing. Only when you decide to pull up stakes do you realize that a band keeps on putting out records even after you’ve lost interest.
In the case of R.E.M., people were saying the band ought to break up going back to at least 1997, when Bill Berry quit, though there’s probably devotees who think R.E.M. lost it almost a decade earlier when it signed to Warner Bros. But it was with 2004’s Around The Sun that consensus really turned against R.E.M. It was so widely assumed that R.E.M. ought to break up that many people started believing that the band actually had broken up. When R.E.M. finally did break up in 2011, Mike Mills voiced his frustration to Spin about all the premature calls to end the band:
I’ve started to realize that everybody’s got an opinion about when a band should have broken up, or should break up. It’s like, fuck you, because this is what we do. Are you going to say, “Ford made a crappy car, they should break up as a car company and stop making cars?” Just because it’s artistic instead of concrete things like widgets, you can’t tell somebody to stop doing what they do just because you don’t like the last product. But that’s what people do with bands.
Mills is absolutely right. Unfortunately, being right in this case doesn’t matter. Saying fans shouldn’t have an opinion about when a band should break up is like saying people shouldn’t drink too much at baseball games or tweet mean jokes about celebrities when they die. This is an area where humans will act a certain way because it is beyond their capacity to do any different.
I realize that I probably feel this way because Mills was essentially telling people like me to go fuck themselves. In 2007, I wrote a piece for The A.V. Club called “R.E.M.’s Incredible Shrinking Legacy” that can be charitably described as a bombastic hatchet job. Not only did I call on R.E.M. to break up, I claimed that 1) every R.E.M. album sounded alike, 2) R.E.M. albums weren’t that great to begin with, and 3) R.E.M. was on the fast track to historical irrelevance.
I’ve already issued one mea culpa about the piece on this site, but I never addressed why I wrote it in the first place. Reading it now is painful, not only because it’s not all that well written, but also because it was driven by a misguided impulse to bury my own past. Setting aside the legitimate criticisms in the piece—R.E.M. had done damage to its legacy during its “lost” period in the late ’90s and early ’00s—I was really writing more about myself than a rock band. R.E.M. represented an old version of me from high school and college. Now that I was in my 20s, I wanted to get as far away from that guy as I could. But playing R.E.M. records would instantly bring him back, every single time. I was bored by this person, and by association, I was bored by the records.
Only I wasn’t bored with Fables—again, not because I liked it more than the others, but because I liked it less. It was the one record I never connected with when I was growing up. The sound was less robust than the albums before and after it. The songs (with the exception of “Driver 8,” which might be my desert-island R.E.M. track) were odd and cloudy and dense with imperceptible details. It’s a record steeped in Southern gothic mythology, which as a kid was a mystery to me. But the emotional terrain of Fables also set me adrift. It’s an album that’s not so much about being lost as it is the actual feeling of being lost. It’s the opposite of an inviting sensation, but for me, Fables treated my R.E.M. malaise like Adderall focuses an ADD-addled brain. What once alienated me about Fables now made perfect sense. It was R.E.M. but not R.E.M. It was a road less taken, which is exactly what I needed from this band at the time. Fables was a hidden path that twisted and pulled toward new places before bringing me back to where I originally started.
Fables was the sore thumb in R.E.M.’s discography even as it was being made. It was recorded far from home, in wintery London, and making it was, by all accounts, an all-around miserable experience. The band’s morale had dipped from non-stop touring for the previous five years, the music didn’t sound right, and the band didn’t get on with producer Joe Boyd, who had been handpicked by Peter Buck because of his involvement with Fairport Convention in the ’60s.
The members of R.E.M naturally turned on each other out of frustration, particularly Michael Stipe and Mike Mills, as Mills recalled to David Buckley in R.E.M. Fiction: An Alternative Biography:
Oh, there were a couple of occasions when we came close to splitting up. In 1985 in Albany, New York, when we had a nice sit down and clear the air kind of meeting, that was probably the worst … Now, Michael and I didn’t get along for a few years. We were very different people; we didn’t really understand certain ways that the other thought. There was love there but there was a great deal of oil and water for a while.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, R.E.M. never grew to love Fables. “It’s a really dark, depressing, and strange record,” Buck told Buckley. “I mean, what’s not to like about that?” The record opens with “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” and its riff is the musical equivalent of a jump cut to a dead body; Buck plays a Rickenbacker rather than a stabbing violin, but a feeling of noir-ish doom reigns regardless. “Maps And Legends” is like a journey into the unknown, or it could just be a dream, with sounds and imagery that’s vivid in the moment but slippery immediately afterward. “Old Man Kensey” and “Wendell Gee” exist in a similar fog that’s partly memory and partly the music’s Southern-bred, slow-mo-on-a-summer’s-day quality. As Patton Oswalt describes, Fables is an album that’s in a constant state of becoming, where the band is figuring it out right before you.
You can hear this instantaneous evolution occur in “Can’t Get There From Here.” The song starts off as fumbling fake-funk, over which Stipe tries out his half-assed Elvis drawl seven years before “Man On The Moon.” Mills’ bass slips in and out of Buck’s guitar, looking for a groove to lock into. Stipe and Mills take their behind-the-scenes squabbling to the chorus, singing at rather than with each other. Then, at the 2:07 mark, everything falls magically into place: R.E.M. becomes one, audibly rising into a wave of forward energy, and like a closed fist powers through the final 90 seconds in unison. Even the squawking horn section that stumbles in at the end sounds perfectly in place.
Oswalt pinpoints two other specific moments when R.E.M. pulls it together on Fables right in front of the listener: “The :41 mark in ‘Driver 8’ when the backing vocal shows up to support the lead, [and] the 2:08 moment in ‘Old Man Kensey,’ the bridge, where the lyrics create a blanket of riddles that the song just says, ‘Fuck it’ and settles deeper in, like an awkward loner at a party that suddenly feels comfortable in the shadows.”
I emailed Oswalt about Fables because I loved how he weaved lyrics from the record into the first piece from his 2011 essay collection, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. Oswalt was a fan of Fables from the beginning, when he saw the video for “Can’t Get There From Here” on MTV. “The visuals were dark and jagged, but it sounded too summery and poppy,” he recalled. “I couldn’t reconcile the two, so I went out and got the album. I can still remember being in Penguin Feather records on Elden Street in Herndon, singing ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ off-key to the clerk. She took pity on me and pointed me toward R.E.M.”
For Oswalt, Fables was the “ambient background music” of his teen years, “when I was reaching out for whatever tendrils of weirdness were reaching into the sunny, scrubbed-clean suburb I was living in.” Even now, he turns to it on a regular basis. “I listen to it, on shuffle, whenever I start a new project,” he said. “I’m sure there are better R.E.M. records—I’d bet even the band would say that. But man, Fables landed me at the right time in my life, in the antechamber between high school falling away and the world opening up—so it’s got me.”
I also came to Fables when I was looking for something. Like all worthwhile quests, getting to the bottom of this music was more about the journey than the destination. In the process of probing these songs that appeared to blend together into a solid murk with no discernible beginning, middle, or end, I rediscovered those pockets in R.E.M.’s music that I had marked long ago and had forgotten about. On Fables Of The Reconstruction, R.E.M. survived the toughest part of growing up, when you’re feeling around in the dark for a direction without a clue about where you’re going. I came to the record when I was going through something similar in my own life. I didn’t like Fables until the precise moment when I needed to like it.
Coming up: The electrifying conclusion of Perfect Circle means also the end of R.E.M. I’ll look at the band’s last two records, 2008’s Accelerate and 2011’s Collapse Into Now, and finally attempt to figure out what R.E.M. represents.