In 1980, four Athens, Georgia kids met and bonded over a love of protopunk artists like Patti Smith and The Velvet Underground. And while the four young men were worlds away from the punk rock epicenters of New York City and London, they would evolve from quintessential college/indie rock status to one of the most famous and world-renowned bands paving the way for the now-dated term “alternative” music. Those four men were Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry; the band they formed was R.E.M.
Over the thirty years, R.E.M. released fourteen studio albums, seven compilations, two live albums and two box sets. Although they lost drummer Bill Berry to retirement in 1997 (he became a hay farmer), the remaining three members continued on and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2007.
In 1985 the band released their third full-length, Fables of the Reconstruction, and although the album didn’t live up to the critical acclaim of both fans and the press of their first two releases, Murmur and Reckoning, the album did set a standard and characterized R.E.M. as a band that was constantly evolving and not afraid of changing their style. Fables of the Reconstruction was a departure from their earlier poppier sound in that it embraced a more somber tone, both melodically and lyrically.
From the first note of “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” the listener is immediately ushered into a gloomier R.E.M., as the song is a vast contrast to the first track, “Radio Free Europe,” from the 1983 Murmur; and instantly the mood is set. The darkest song on the album is by far “Old Man Kensey,” a song about pipe dreams and seeing yourself in the sometimes dilapidated people around you: “Old Man Kensey wants to be a dog catcher/First he’s got to learn to stand/He’s gonna to be a clown in a marching band/Letters to me signed ransom greed/(That’s my folly) I believe.”
Emotionally fragile and beautifully arranged in its lineup, the album continues along with its complicated venture. The final track on the album brings the band’s Southern roots to the forefront with “Wendell Gee;” and in that moment it’s hard to imagine the Georgia boys being able to pull off the soulful sound that clearly reflects their home in the American South, thousands of miles away in a London recording studio. It’s a heart-wrenching end to an album that for so long went under-appreciated by both the band and fans alike.
The album was recorded in the winter of 1985 in London with producer Joe Boyd, who at the time was best known for his work with Nick Drake and Pink Floyd, then later Billy Bragg and 10,000 Maniacs. Originally, the band did not care for the outcome of the album, and it was only recently that lead singer Michael Stipe has finally admitted to having grown to love Fables.
In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M. has re-released the album. The anniversary edition is digitally remastered and includes fourteen unreleased demos of the songs that were recorded in 1984 and 1985 before leaving for their London recording of the album.
Along with the two-CD set, the edition includes a poster, postcards and liner notes about the album from the band members.
Similarly to a fine wine, Fables of the Reconstruction is a perfect example of how sometimes a really great endeavor needs time to breathe before it can be truly regarded as noteworthy and iconic. R.E.M., the former college band from Athens, may have changed their sound and style a dozen times since their incarnation in 1980, but Fables still stands as the album where they first dared to take risks, and in doing so they defined themselves as true artists.
One of the greatest songs off the album is “Driver 8.” Here is a very young R.E.M. (Michael Stipe has hair!) performing the acoustic version of the song: