Writing in the liner notes of 2010’s expanded, appended reissue of REM’s third album, Peter Buck alludes to “a certain misapprehension” that has built up around the record. “For some reason,” he ponders, “people have the impression that the members of REM don’t like [it].” If Buck wants to know how that impression came about, he could do a lot worse than scour some of his old press cuttings. For several years following its release, Buck’s stock response to any hyperbole surrounding Fables of the Reconstruction was blinking bewilderment. “All my friends say Fables is their favourite record,” he said a decade ago, “[When] I ask why, they say, ‘Well it’s gloomy and edgy, gothic and dark.’ And I can see that, but at the time… we were incapable of meaning anything, we were too busy trying to survive.”
From the outside, everything about Fables of the Reconstruction seemed more deliberate than it actually was. Going into 1985, REM were steeped in so much gothic American mystique that ents officers who booked them were genuinely surprised when the group turned up in anything other than a old converted boxcar driven by a 100 year-old man in dungarees answering to the name of Zebulon. Michael Stipe’s elliptical mumblings compounded the otherworldliness of 1983’s Murmur and 1984’s Reckoning. An album of songs which reflected the singer’s fascination with the oral storytelling traditions of the old south seemed a smart move – although history records that the conceit might have been brought about for more prosaic reasons. With hardly any songs written for their third album and just three weeks before they were due to start recording, Stipe needed some thematic putty to help him get cracking.
And if REM were to make a record of downhome folk tales, it made sense that the man producing them would be Joe Boyd – the American producer who, years previously, had emboldened British bands like Fairport Convention and Incredible String Band into bastardising their own traditional music. In fact, what was theoretically a good idea almost split REM up. Had it done so, the group’s swansong would be one of the most unsettlingly absorbing albums of its decade. Forget what Fables of the Reconstruction is ostensibly about. Recorded in a rainy north London studio by four people who “were completely out of our minds”, Fables is really about the mental fragility of the people making it.
Indeed, it only takes a few seconds of first track Feeling Gravity’s Pull to realise as much. The insistence with which Buck’s serrated guitar refrain cuts into the ominous oscillations of the string section makes for arguably the most demonic moment in the band’s whole canon. Auctioneer isn’t much easier on the ear but, as an excerpt from some elliptical Southern daydream, it’s no less compelling.
Not that dissonance is the point here. When it appears, it’s merely the occasional by-product of the noise made by four unhappy people. “We had no money to do anything,” remembered Mike Mills, “There were only four TV channels, it was cold, we were lonely.” Home might be the last thing you want to sing about when you’re feeling homesick, and herein – among the gauzy misty-eyed jangle of Maps & Legends, Green Grow The Rushes and the ceaselessly life-affirming chorus of Driver 8 – lies the magic of Fables of the Reconstruction.
For the measure of what those emotions brought to the recording of these songs, the extra CD of locally recorded demos that came with the 2010 reissue is hugely illuminating. The quality of the songs may be far more apparent than it was to a panicking 28 year-old Buck – not least a previously unreleased gem called Throw Those Trolls Away (whose lyric resurfaced in 1986’s I Believe) – but it’s still the sound of a band operating within their comfort zone. Ostensibly a list of tips you might give to a loved one leaving home (“When you greet a stranger/Look at his shoes”), Good Advices sounds like a song that hasn’t decided what it wants to be yet – as evidenced by the sound of a young Stipe saying, “I think I want to hear that back” before the final note has even faded. Scoot back to the finished version, and 25 years of familiarity have done nothing to diminish the way the song suddenly buckles beneath its own sadness in the middle-eight. Stipe has ever sung a line as affectingly as he sings, “Home is a long way away.”
Had you not known that sessions for the record were fraught, you might have picked up some subtle signs when REM set about promoting the record in Britain. Michael Stipe had taken to dying his hair with egg yolks and writing the word “dog” on his forehead. Seemingly uncertain that he was cut out for the life of a proper band, Peter Buck briefly returned to his old job in a record shop. In a parallel world, perhaps he’s still there now, as blinkingly bewildered as ever, when devotees from further afield than Athens come to tell him that he made of the most forebodingly magnificent records of its era.