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R.E.M.: Fables Of The Reconstruction

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Album: A; Bonus CD: C+

R.E.M. has mastered the art of effortlessly mismatching itself from album to album, and even song to song, but the band didn’t start doing so until its third album, 1985’s Fables Of The Reconstruction. “Feeling Gravitys Pull” introduces the album with a sense of grandeur that nobody would’ve heard even in the swells of Reckoning’s “Time After Time” or “Camera.” Peter Buck’s guitar hangs creepy and alone at first, and Michael Stipe’s lyrics evoke a near-arrogant moment of creative self-discovery: “Time and distance are out of place here.” And the Fables track list keeps turning the sonic map upside down and inside out. When the album jumps, for instance, from the minor bassline of “Old Man Kensey” to the hyper soul of “Can’t Get There From Here,” a haze of suspicion remains over fun and supposedly Southern-gothic moments alike. Tracks that might otherwise have fit beautifully into R.E.M.’s first two albums―“Green Grow The Rushes and” “Good Advices”―trade some of the band’s early understatement for suspense.

That quality is a little harder to hear on the CD of demos (recorded in Athens, before R.E.M. went to England to record) that comes with Fables’ 25th-anniversary reissue. The band performs “Driver 8” a notch or two below the brisk tempo that brought out the song’s gnawing anxiety on the final version. “Maps And Legends” comes off more as sloppy than mysterious or stately, and in general, the songwriting is already there, but the slyly disorienting execution isn’t. The only real treats on the bonus disc peek ahead to 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant. R.E.M. sounds much more in the mood for the sparky Pageant song “Hyena” than for any of the darker Fables tracks, and “Throw Those Trolls Away” contains lyrics that wound up in Pageant’s “I Believe.” The rest feels uncertain and inhibited. This reissue does reveal how much R.E.M. ended up growing into these songs, not only as a band, but as a dramatic force. Fables could have been one shadowy, incongruous mess, but instead, R.E.M. pulled off one in a long trail of shadowy, incongruous masterpieces.