30 Years Ago: R.E.M. Release ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’
Long before R.E.M. were global superstars, they were southern boys done good. Regardless of whether the landscape outside of your bedroom window was covered in kudzu or Spanish moss, red clay or train tracks, the arrival of a new album from Athens' favorite sons meant something made just for you.
I'm not speaking hypothetically -- I was there. Fables of the Reconstruction was released the same week that I graduated from a high school notched into the red clay and the loblolly pines of Upstate South Carolina.
My best buddy and I took a drive down I-85 in his beat-up Toyota, cassettes and dirty socks strewn across the back seat and Fables blasting from a tape deck worth more than his car. The scruffy trees and the impossibly green horizon rolled past. "Man, this could only be made here," I said.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"Just listen. The music matches the landscape. Anywhere else in the world it wouldn't make sense. You couldn't write 'Driver 8' in New York City."
"I'll grant you that environment influences music, but I think you're overstating it a bit," my buddy said.
But I wasn't.
The band's last truly southern album was their first recorded outside of the south. What had been a very fruitful relationship with Mitch Easter and Don Dixon had begun to overshadow the two producers' own careers. Drummer Bill Berry is quoted in Marcus Gray's It Crawled From the South: An R.E.M. Companion as saying: "I think [Easter] was getting a little miffed by the fact that whenever he did an interview that he thought was going to be about [his band] Let's Active, the first questions he was asked were always about producing R.E.M."
For his part, Easter remembers the split differently, noting that the band wanted to start the Fables sessions in February of '85, while Let's Active were out on tour. Regardless, the band packed up for London, where Joe Boyd took the producer's chair. Boyd's CV included several artists that appeal to alt-indie listeners to this day, including Nick Drake, Richard Thompson, and the Incredible String Band. Bonus cool points: Boyd produced Pink Floyd's classic Syd Barrett-era single, "Arnold Layne."
The production's Englishness didn't seep into the production, at least not overtly. There's a strong connection between the American south and England -- those Appalachian hills were settled by the English, Irish, and Scottish, after all. Some Shakespearean scholars argue that to hear the playwright's works performed authentically, one would need a cast comprised not of upper middle class English accents but rather the "hillbilly" accent of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
England has its eccentrics, too, and unique (but very southern) characters feature prominently in several of the album's songs: "Old Man Kensey," "Wendell Gee," "Maps and Legends" with its dedication to Georgia outsider artist Reverend Howard Finster.
The album's title is so southern that it drips with peach juice and humidity. "Reconstruction" is a loaded word in the south, conjuring the period just after the Civil War, and "Fables"? Well, there's a long tradition of storytelling in the south, particularly stories about interesting people.
Old Man Kensey was one such person, a real-life assistant to the Reverend Finster, who created the artwork for the band's previous album, Reckoning. (Finster also painted the cover to Talking Head's Little Creatures.) In interviews during that period, band members told stories of Kensey jumping out of a coffin stuck in the bed of a pickup truck just to scare old ladies and holding dogs for ransom.
Trains, eccentric characters -- the album was so deeply imbued with southern narrative that it was originally named The Sound and the Fury, a title it would have shared with William Faulkner's stream of consciousness novel about the Compsons, a formerly great southern family in a state of decay. Stipe said in a radio interview in '85 (quoted in Gray) that, "Up to the last minute, it was titled something else that we stole from Shakespeare, but we decided against it because William Faulkner had already stolen it." The quote in question comes from Macbeth. Don't forget to read it with a hillbilly accent:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
And so the alternate, original title gives us one of two keys to meaning: Is this an album about a once aristocratic south fallen into decay, or is it simply a tale told by an idiot? Both, neither. Stipe once explained (again, quoted in Gray) that he was
...coming to terms with the nostalgia aspect. It wasn't intentional when we were recording the album. The more I discussed it with friends, the clearer it became that I and many of the people I hang out with are really patriotic for what is essentially a pipe dream, that doesn't exist or maybe never did exist....In Europe, you can walk around and the sense of history that seeps out of buildings makes you feel not quite so big. You feel a great sense of place. In America, that sense of place is essentially a myth. Especially in the Deep South.
That is what makes Fables quintessentially southern, that desire to scrape together a sense of place out of a few scruffy pine trees, a little kudzu, the "green rushes" and a crazy dognapper. Album opener "Feeling Gravity's Pull" is taken to be about falling asleep while reading, but given the context one could make a solid case for the seductive gravity of that mythical sense of place.
Then again, maybe not. None of this matters. If Fables is indeed no more than a tale told by an idiot, it's a tale that I've been listening to for 30 years now. These songs are as much a part of my mythical sense of place as the rolling hills of the Piedmont, the crumbling trestle bridge down Rainbow Lake Road and the train tracks over by Hillcrest where we could launch our cruddy cars airborne for a few feet.
Sometimes it's better not not to know the truth behind the fables. Sometimes it's better to turn off one's brain and just listen to the music and accept without question that we can't get there from here.