As I sit here and mull over the streaming version of the Fables 2nd Disc, I wanted to offer some thoughts and views on Fables of the Reconstruction before it is re-released. An album that changed my life, Fables is oft forgotten in the R.E.M. canon of being an amazing rock and roll record and still holds up today as a classic.
I also thought in conjunction with my other site devoted more to general music, that this should be the inaugural entry into my “Desert Island Disc” series where I explore some of my thoughts and feelings about albums that warrant continual listens over the years.
Michael Stipe is an Asshole.
There. I said it.
I said what needed to be said. So as you sit there all uncomfortable, confused, possibly angry and wanting to throw something at me in your seat, relax and sit back while I offer some thoughts while describing in accurate detail the last 23+ years of my life.
Whenever, you have a blog devoted to one band it is a difficult sell, to try to tell the reader my love for a particular album. Why? Because how does that album differ from the other collection of songs and albums spanning 30 years? Ultimately, I am biased, but find me someone who isn’t? I am just another fanboy with another fanboy moment telling you how great something is. Truth be told, I cannot say that about every album or every song nor defend the band at great lengths for the sake of the band. Fables of the Reconstruction is an easy album to defend, however.
‘Fables of the Reconstruction’ was a slow and sometimes painful process of musical listening. It happened to be the first album that I purchased from this fabled foursome and one that continues upon the unique presence that they exhibited on their early music. If I ever create the ubiquitous “Boxed Set” of songs that mean something to me, this album or songs from it would begin the “Serious Listening Phase” of my life, when music meant something more than just Top 40 radio. And often, there are very few albums that I can actually pick up and remember the first time that I listened to it especially those that are 20+ years old.
Fables on the other hand, carries a very vivid memory. A cloudy day in mid-August on the way to Wisconsin for vacation seemed to be the perfect visionary magnet that has remained with me all these years. So, 23 years later, website and all, I sit to you writing about this album and why if you do not have it why you should.
For a 14 year old at the time listening to this album, it did not necessarily just pop out at me being pop candy. Fables is an acquired taste and particularly through a first listen, does not catch on but instead requires repeated listens and allowed to breathe like a fine wine. It’s an album that would fail today, not because it sounds dated; not at all, but for the fact that with so much music to digest, we live on gluttony and forget to taste all the flavors. This album is not going to hit you like a ton of bricks but instead focuses on the sounds of the tree limbs bending.
As the title of the album would suggest, ‘Fables of the Reconstruction” or “Reconstruction of the Fables” depending on how you read the spine, Stipe creates his own stories, his own passages from the sleepy south. Visions of Old Man Kensey catching dogs or jumping out of a casket, Brivs Mekis, the storyline behind the song “Life and How to Live It”, separating his home into two separate abodes and living in one until he tires of that one and then moving into the other. Or maybe it’s ‘Wendell Gee’ who built a trunk with Chicken Wire or Reverend Howard Finster, the subject of ‘Maps and Legends’. These are not your classic fairytale creatures but given an author’s due with sometimes discrete but dutiful expression in detail. He paints all the colors of the palette as their stories are told. This album secures them as a southern rock band but even writing this might give you the wrong idea. They are not the Allman Brothers or Skynrd but part folk song, part country, part rock and roll and a little punk thrown in there for size.
Michael Stipe is not an easy customer. This would not mean that he is difficult to deal with but rather I imagine that the requests, comments and suggestions he would offer up are without a doubt a painstaking process for everyone involved. I remember Mike Mills making a comment for example about the song “Swan Swan Hummingbird” written as “Swan Swan H” on the album cover for Lifes Rich Pageant and having a fit with that. His interviews around this time were like pulling teeth as the band mates would look over confusingly at him during comments to the point where he pretty much stops giving interviews altogether. And thus, the song meanings have always been up to the interpretation of the listener. As he paints the picture, we can often take a wrong turn or even bring something of ourselves into the storyline, focusing on the wrong line. For Stipe, this process is part that feeds him as the puzzle is laid in front of you with multiple answers.
Even as we listen to the album, there are still elements of his “mumbles” from previous efforts. However, this third effort moves him beyond the simple to the complex. Fables provides some of the most established lyric writing and compared to the rest of R.E.M.’s work, a true bold step, that questioned his wordplay or storytelling during a show. If earlier albums like the EP Chronic Town and Murmur would suggest, Michael Stipe was more a musical prop. On this album, he writes his first novel.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Michael Stipe the storyteller, playing the part of Uncle Remus relaying his own images of the south, albeit from a different perspective. Instead of focusing on racial issues, Stipe creates his own lore, people and images that provide a rich and deep history that is often absent in present day culture.
I am reminded of how difficult it was to characterize R.E.M.’s early music. Were, they progressive or folk rock or psychedelic or rock or Americana? What I think it came down to was that Michael Stipe is very visual and it was not about writing genre-based music but visual music. What he has always been able to convey is taking Bill, Mike and Peter’s music and putting a place or location to their work. While this is not totally unique in music, Stipe created places and people, especially in Fables, we often do not talk about.
Back to the “Asshole” comment. What I meant about my statement above about Michael being an asshole is that after 23 years of listening to this album, far more and longer than any album that is currently in my possession, I still am trying to figure it out. Not every mystery has been unleashed. I have not found certain “Secret Levels” where a clue might indicate a new fact about a particular song. My comment about him (Asshole) is out of sheer frustration . . .well frustration and gratitude. Our musicians can be our current philosophers; the good ones at least transcend our own meaning of life to ask questions to ourselves. It is not as simple as writing a love song about a broken heart but going beyond that. Writing about politics, religion, society, we focus on the simple in our media.
However, looking back at this album 25 years after it’s release looks at it from an entirely new viewpoint. For one, the argument that if ‘Fables’, if released today, but be chic and cool, is lost on me. By the time that Fables was released in 1985, R.E.M. were no longer the “Diaper Dandies” of the Progressive/College Rock community but had a loyal cult following. I would reluctantly point out it’s too trying in our data-driven environment to slow down enough to be willing to give it time.
That era did not have the gluttony of music that we have today and I have never looked at this album as necessarily having the components that would encourage repeated listens in today’s environment. While the album does not sound dated by any means it played a role during a certain era that needed an alternative to pop music.
Over the past 25 years is that we have a much different relationship with these songs than we did at first listen. This is both the blessing and curse of being in a rock band for so long is songs like “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, “Driver 8” and “Wendell Gee” become part of who we are and we cannot escape that.
What is so genius about this album is how the stories and fables question our own motives and prophecies. This constant struggle between belief and common sense/technology is one whereby Stipe confronts head on using outcasts as his subjects.
Consider a song like Wendell Gee who becomes ungrounded in his pursuits via prophecy and it becomes his downfall. On the other hand, Maps and Legends says an equally engaging story about a man living in his prophecy and is laughed at by society for his own beliefs.
‘Life and How to Live It’ asks the question of whether conflict becomes such a polarizing affair through a man that splits his house in two and will live on one side of the house for awhile and then after tiring of that side will move onto the other side. When performed before the 2004 Presidential Elections I thought that the song was fitting for the political environment we live in.
Outside of the lore of the south is the fear of technology and capitalism. Green Grow the Rushes says it so perfectly in the line “Amber Waves of Gain”, whereby hard work is sacrificed for cheaper labor. Auctioneer (Another Engine), could almost be described as Rockville pt. 2 when it questions the motives of moving away for success and sacrificing love.
Where the album comes together is in the soul of the album. This is an album longing for a band that is feeling the pains of recording across the pond, conflicted over their success and stardom, getting fed into the lore of the south but also questioning it. As the band have suggested, it was a major point when the band asked themselves if they wanted to continue on this path.
Its strength is in its conviction that they are not just words written on a piece of paper for a song but the truth about an American band from the south.