Enduring and prolific bands like R.E.M. present a special challenge for the makers of big lists: A case can be made for the first influential burst of creativity, or the big commercial breakthrough, or any of the milemarkers in between.
Building the 1000 Recordings list, I began from the presumption that the reader would be approaching “cold,” ie, wouldn’t know any of an act’s output, and so my first consideration was always accessibility: Is this album a good point of entry? This led to no small amount of agonizing between personal preference and accepted wisdom, between the big influential hit and the lesser-known gem.
With R.E.M., the tug of war involved Murmer, the debut album that is widely credited with opening up new pathways for rock bands, and Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), the band’s third full-length effort, which contains some of its most cryptic and wonderful songs. There’s a newly remastered version of Fables, a two-disc keepsake complete with an entire disc of demos. It’s the perfect Next Stop for anyone who started with Murmer and is curious about the band’s subsequent trajectory. Though the demos are not essential, Fables itself emerges as something brilliant and rare, a hurtling, slightly blurry, mesmeric travelogue filled with half-scenes and mysterious impressions. I got reacquainted with it during hour two of a five-hour road trip; from the opening cathedral-bell guitar tritone of “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” it held me completely. It’s arguably the most engrossing lane-changing music in the band’s discography.
That’s partly because the songs seem to all connect, in some way, to the notion of travel – even in the slower songs, there’s a sense of things moving forward, if not careening out of control. And it’s partly because of the odd characters one meets on journeys, the train conductors and creepy porchdwellers and lost GPS-lacking souls seeking directions at filling stations – the forlorn ones with rusted vending machines and signs advertising long-defunct regional brands. But it’s also because of the circumstances: The band had been on the road for most of four years, playing songs from its first two records, and had yet to take a reappraising breath. As guitarist Peter Buck says in a brief liner note, “the four of us were completely out of our minds at the time.” Where tunes from the previous albums had been road-tested, Fables was a studio creation.
The remaster sharpens the edges of the songs, and, at the same time, makes clear that Fables wasn’t just about edges – the band was in pursuit of a diffuse, dusty-road psychedelia in which graceful guitar arpeggios support sprawling and often beautifully harmonized vocal ruminations. Producer Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, countless others) plays a George Martin-like role here, showing the band some of the ways the studio can expand, and make awesome, the noises produced by four individuals. He takes care to ensure that each element in the layered schemes is rendered distinctly – he catches the fleeting dissonances in the stacks of vocal harmony (“Green Grow the Rushes”) and provides each of the overlapping vocal parts, in the gloriously unhinged peak-moment chorales of “Driver 8” and others, with enough space to shine. Turns out those under-the-hood details, mostly lost on earlier CD iterations, are essential to the sound – and powerful enough to argue for a (long overdue) Fables reappraisal.