Fables of the Reconstruction, the third album from Athens, GA wunderkinds R.E.M., is probably the weakest album that they've done. It's also an incredible album, easily the best record (so far) of '85. Fables is R.E.M.'s weakest only by default -- their 1983 debut, Murmur, is an organic classic whose stature grows daily, and last year's more straightforward Reckoning, while not as mysterious, had a strong live feel.
Reconstruction once again subtly alters R.E.M.'s basic guitar chime, with famed English folk producer Joe Boyd giving them a denser sound as well as sonic experiments with organ, strings and even banjo. A prime example of this is the opening cut, "Feeling Gravitys Pull," which alternates dissonance and drone with a melodic bridge that provides just enough relief to set up for the intrusion of the string section. "Old Man Kensey" is darker and more ominous than anything they've done before as it slowly spirals toward its bridge, full of overdubbed vocals, and then drags you back to the heart of the lyric. Like their English cousins, The Smiths, R.E.M. understands the value of repetition and songs that endlessly circle towards their own middle, but while The Smiths find a groove and go with it, R.E.M. always finds a way to break out of the whirlpool, taking you somewhere unexpected before bringing you back, usually a little bit wiser.
To balance the experimentation, much of the album is in the R.E.M. vein of Byrdsy folk-rock, but any criticism calling them "Byrds-clones" betrays a profound ignorance of both bands. Sure, they work in the same territory, but where the Byrds had beautiful vocal harmonies (and Roger McGuinn's manic guitar leads), R.E.M. uses vocal counterpoint, with Michael Stipe's lead vocals and bassist Mike Mills' backing vocals often singing different things at the same time. Fables is also an album, like the other two, that relies on great moments that draw you into a song you might not have really paid attention to.
For example, the first single, "Can't Get There From Here," which they've said was written as a lark, and in some respects, with its psuedo-soul guitar and horns and contradictory chorus (Michael is saying "Can't get there from here" while the backing vocals are claiming "I've been there/I know the way"), it might be a joke, and excercise in playing a fun riff. But when Mr. Stipe revs into the hands-up, falling back, falsetto scream that announces said chorus, the song kicks into high gear every time, and turns into potentially the most potentially deadly single they've ever done.
And Reconstruction has a lot of those inexplicable musical moments -- the haunting guitar line that powers "Life and How to Live It;" the chorus of "Driver 8;" the feedback accompanying Peter Buck's bendy guitar solo in "Kahoutek;" the sheer beauty of "Good Advices" -- these songs all have parts where everything makes sense and yet still retains a freshness and mystery that draws you back again and again.
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This document HTMLized 15 August 2001
I was listening to Magnetic Fields -- 69 Love Songs