The Album List #8: R.E.M. “Fables of the Reconstruction”


It all starts with them, and it will end with them, always.

I’m still recovering from the September announcement of R.E.M.’s end. They were hugely important to me in my life, and even though I know they made the right decision, I’m still trying to get my head around the idea that there will be no more R.E.M.

I have every album. This is the one that remains my favourite. It bridges the famed jingle jangle of Murmur and Reckoning with the vibrant experiments that would follow.

From the moment “Feeling Gravitys Pull” opens with the distinctive arpeggios Peter Buck was notorious for, only drenched with the London fog and Southern Gothic that infuse the album as opposed to the sunnier Byrdsian tones of their previous album, you are in for a special experience. The album has gotten so much flack over the years, but it really is a masterpiece of mood and substance in an era of plastic and style. It’s just gorgeous. Listen to that middle eight.

THey would add a horn section and some humour (“Cant Get There From Here”), some la-la-las (“Green Grow The Rushes”), some Gang of Four inspired guitars (“Auctioneer (Another Engine)”). But there are four songs on this album of unmitigated beauty, and in my opinion, four of their greatest compositions.

First, the classic folk-rock R.E.M,, complete with buried, oblique sounding lyrics puncturing the prettiness of “Life and How To Live It”  deserves mention if only because I remember listening to it and saying “I understand some lyrics!”. Something about cotton. Whatever, it’s just beautiful.

“Driver 8” propels forward the Americana. It’s a train song. Nothing is more American than songs about trains.  The song was popular enough to get a video despite never being released as a single.  Ther eis even a R.E.M.esque driving force behind the song, a gentler version of a rocking, rolling, riding train.

The gorgeous “Wendell Gee”  is all piano, banjo, and the two amazing voices of Michael Stipe and Mike Mills. Rarely played live (Peter Buck famously disliked the song), I have decided to reward myself here by linking to a video of Mills playing piano, singing “Wendell Gee” alone. Stripped bare, it astonishes.

But when push comes to shove, for all the glory of the Warner years and pure magic of the I.R.S. year, my favourite album holds my favourite song. Track two.

See, it’s clearly a spin-off their earlier style, only steeped even more in the myth of the South. Inspired by folk artist Rev. Howard Finster, drenched with gorgeous harmonies and counter harmonies, it’s a flawless songs. Flawless. The beauty of “Maps and Legends” is that I don’t even care what Michael is saying, I just want to hear it again and again and again and again…

If R.E.M. has imploded after Fables, they would have been an interesting footnote, an influential footnote, but a footnote. Fortunately, they kept it together, and what came next is legendary.

They would never, ever top this album, or “Maps and Legends”, in my opinion.

As I think of a world in which no more new R.E.M. music appears (their last official single made my year- and my top five of 2011), I feel saddened. But I also know that they left a legacy that is difficult to top. Few bands last thirty plus years, let alone with a sense of integrity and identity this band did. They remain forever my beloveds, my band.

I will love them forever. I will like them for always. As long as I’m living, Fables will be at my side.*

*With apologies to Robert Munsch. He said it first, and better, than I ever could.
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