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How R.E.M. Avoided a Rut with ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’

REM Fables of the Reconstruction
I.R.S. Records

R.E.M. had already released two albums, an EP and a groundbreaking single, all of which made them kings of the college-rock-radio movement that was beginning to pick up steam by the mid ‘80s. And they were beginning to get in a rut. So they took the most logical – or would that be illogical? – step for their third album, ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’: They went to London and worked with a folk-rock producer who really didn’t know a thing about American college rock. And they surfaced with their murkiest set of songs yet.

Joe Boyd was best known for producing British folk icons Nick Drake and Fairport Convention when R.E.M. tapped him for ‘Fables.’ And for two months in early 1985, the band laid down a group of songs that would somehow turn out to be their most Americana sounding. Unlike Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, who gave R.E.M.’s other work a shimmering, if occasionally hazy, coat, Boyd buried the group’s trademark jangle and bright punch in a muddy mix that suits the songs, which lyrically and musically would be their most somber until 1992’s similarly death-obsessed ‘Automatic for the People’ was released.

Some of the tracks were tougher too, stinging with piercing guitar lines and more battle-ready rhythms. Plus, Boyd and the band decided to play around with the music, adding strings to one song and horns to another. The best cuts – the ringing ‘Driver 8,’ the playful ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ and the plaintive ‘Wendell Gee’ – reveal new shades to a group that was starting to get pigeonholed after two albums. ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’ isn’t a great R.E.M. record, but it is a very good one, and one of the most overlooked of their career.

The record climbed to No. 28 on the chart, one spot down from ‘Reckoning’’s No. 27 showing in 1984. It eventually went gold, even though neither of its two singles made it to the Top 100. ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ and ‘Driver 8’ did chart at rock radio (the modern-rock chart was still a few years away from debuting), but neither was able to crack the Top 10. When R.E.M. returned the following year with ‘Lifes Rich Pageant,’ they were back on familiar ground – literally (it was recorded in Indiana) and figuratively (it sounds closer to the first two albums than their third). ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’ was a one-time shot at something new. And for the most part, it did what it had set out to do, breaking the band from its familiar pattern.

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