I have a relationship with R.E.M. as with no other band. I wouldn't claim for a moment that they were the best that's ever been by any means. Or even that they were more important than other groups who were also putting out great work in the early to mid-eighties, (The Smiths and The Go Betweens come immediately to mind), the period where they put out their first records, the ones that still mean the most to me and the ones I keep coming back to and always will. They're just my band, the one I constructed much of my personal identity and perspective of the world from, in my late teens and early twenties when you do these important, unrepeatable things.
'When the light is mine. I felt gravity's pull...'
Fables of the Reconstruction was their third album and was recorded and released in 1985 when they were undergoing a lot of personal change, as was I. I was in the middle of my gap year and then went on from there to university where of course so many of the important things begin to happen. As for R.E.M., they meanwhile found themselves in London, away from their former production team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon for the first time, recording the album instead with Joe Boyd, producer of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake among numerous other notables.
'He's not to be reached. He's to be reached...'
R.E.M had a famously and well-documented terrible time during the recording of the record. It was cold, they were poor, and existing apparently on a dreadful diet consisting mostly of potatoes in addition to having to become acquainted with the dubious pleasures of the London Underground of the mid-eighties in winter on the way to and from their recording studio. The turmoil they underwent during this period is reported to have brought them to the verge of splitting, though the strong nature of their personal friendships and shared mission, (a notable feature of the band), stopped this from taking place.
'Way to shield the hated heat. Way to put myself to sleep...'
The record they came out with is notoriously muddy. Whereas the production of Murmur and Reckoning is thoughtful and layered and different instruments can be clearly differentiated in the mix, allowing the listener to follow different things each time, Fables still sounds like thick soup, even thirty years on. Boyd has been repeatedly blamed for this, much to his irritation.The muddiness though for me is part of its attraction and ongoing appeal.
'Two doors to go between. The wall was raised today...'
I bought and heard the record in the autumn of '85, just after returning from Switzerland where I'd been working for six months and where I'd fallen tentatively in love for the first time. I was already in love with R.E.M., however, their mystery and melody chiming with an idea I was developing of myself. I bought the album in Richmond in the company of a friend and went back to his parent's flat to listen.
'Joe, Bill and Ted, stand on your head, (that's my folly)...'
My first listening reaction was an almost total blank. It was nothing like I'd expected, nothing like either Murmur or Reckoning to my ears. It took me a while. There are of course clear continuations between the three albums, as I came to discover on repeated listens, the melodies, the vocal harmonies, the evocation of the American South and Michael Stipe's lyrical concerns, found poetry and thick vocal burr, almost as incomprehensible as previously in terms of the actual words or coherent sense of individual songs but slowly coming into focus in terms of what he was saying and where all this was going.
'Can't get there from here. (I've been there, I know the way)'
It does take some work however. I'm still working on it and thinking about it thirty years on but the album is worth it and things are beginning to fall into place. Fables is crammed full with duality. An album of eleven songs, each of them to some degree a narrative about the Deep South and the consciousness and troubled eccentricity it generates and shapes. Knowing your Faulkner, McCullers and O'Connor is helpful in this respect because the band feed on these forbears in their early work particularly.
'Green grow the rushes go. The compass points the workers home...'
Life is a great deal about narratives. Which R.E.M knew. They were grounded in narratives. Communal, happy living in Athens, Georgia and a shared experience which is where this record comes from. Listening to their early albums you can hear The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Creedence, The Band coming out of the mix but also the way that veers off into the road into the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Television, and on towards the arty side of UK Punk with Wire and the Gang of Four.
'Fever built a bridge. Reason tore it down.'
But the narrative here is actually a lot deeper. This is a confused, conflicted record.Ill at ease with itself. And in the tension, the awareness of their potential and the idea of where they might be going is pretty much what makes this the quintessential R.E.M. album along with Murmur and Automatic For the People. Knowing their talent, sure of themselves. Over the next few records they burrowed into the idea of being the biggest band in America and then from there to the world, slimmed down their songwriting craft, first through Fall on Me, then The One I Love and finally Losing My Religion which showed them the way back home to Automatic for the People which is probably their lasting statement and their best record and testament. How they found their way home.
'We never wrote the reasons that I need explained. Some things are givens and others get away.'
Pretty much all of the songs on Fables are unfinished. They're open ended and lonely. Orphans all. They speak of a certain kind of unhappiness and disorientation that never really knows satisfaction. But not one that doesn't know the way back onto the main road. When I went to see the band play in Hamersmith Palais in the autumn of 1985 with my older brother and younger sister they put on one of the great Rock and Roll shows I'll ever see. As they kicked into the opening bars of Feeling Gravity's Pull, the clean cut American college kids at the front of the venue felt the surge of the London crowd pushing behind them and melted in genuine but slightly unjustified terror toward the back of the venue. From that point on the night was all melody and tension. They were quite remarkable!
'I'd like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away.'
I haven't told the whole story about Fables here. I can't. Nobody can. It's one of the best open-ended, inexplicable records ever made. You can talk and write about other R.E.M. albums but this one remains elusive. Even to the people who made it I imagine. It's like a fish out of water, flip flopping on planks. It's crammed full of great songs, some of the best this band ever wrote, but none of them done full justice.
'He had a dream one night. That the tree had lost its middle...'
As I write, Peter Buck, the guitarist of R.E.M. and one of the guiding visionaries of this great band has turned sixty and is heading on to sixty one. I wonder what he thinks of this album. I think I read a quote from him today that said that nobody else could have made this particular record. In that respect he's entirely right.