One time, Jack Kerouac asked William Burroughs to read and react to something he’d written. Burroughs did so, and said he liked what he read. But that wasn’t enough for Kerouac, who pressed: What do you specifically like about it? Burroughs replied that he didn’t know what he liked about it, specifically. He just liked it, that’s all.
Fables of the Reconstruction, the fourth record by R.E.M., invites similarly non-specific praise. One absorbs the sound of these songs, one by one, mood by mood, without being greatly concerned with precisely what they might be about. Too much close scrutiny — trying to comprehend singer Michael Stipe’s often hazy diction and imposing an interpretive framework upon the few lyrics that can be sussed out — is a self-defeating and frustrating exercise, as a day’s worth of listen-guess-replay-guess-again made clear to me. Better to just accept Stipe’s dusky voice as an extraordinarily evocative instrument, perhaps the lead instrument in this band, since there are no soloists per se.
Though attempts at analysis will probably be futile, some stray fragment of a lyric — “It’s a Man Ray kind of sky” or “When you greet a stranger/Look at her hands” — might set off all sorts of intellectual resonances. Because R.E.M. suggests instead of spells out, leaving you to guess at what tantalizing secrets they’re keeping, they have amassed a substantial following among the kind of discriminating fans who spurn contemporary-hit radio and Music Television.
Their latest record finds R.E.M. taking a few giant steps away from the format of the previous three, which were all cut in North Carolina with producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. Fables of the Reconstruction was made in England with Joe Boyd, the producer and creative midwife of some of the most stirring British folk records of the past few decades, by artists like Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and Richard and Linda Thompson. R.E.M.’s liaison with Boyd makes perfect sense. Rural England and the rural South — the band members are all Georgians — share a deep tradition of myth and mystery that’s nurtured in the bond between man and land.
R.E.M. draws upon the more haunting aspects of the South for inspiration and subject matter. Though they never deal with history head-on, the title of their album betrays an interest in history or, more exactly, the effect of a historical event in shaping the peculiar culture of their region. Fables is not a concept album, but there is a contextual frame here — more so than on R.E.M.’s other records. Perhaps making this album in another country gave them the distance to see their own more clearly.
Besides being a kind of cultural overview, Fables of the Reconstruction unfolds as a series of observations sequenced to suggest a dialogue between extremes: tension and languor, momentum and inertia, the natural and the surreal, accessibility and impenetrability. The band — Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry — establishes mood and texture without resorting to needless studio histrionics. Joe Boyd’s genius is that his influence is almost undetectable; Fables is as devoid of the fifth-member diversions of a producer as R.E.M.’s previous records.
They do, however, toss in the occasional stylistic curve ball or quirky embellishment to flesh out the details of a song. “Can’t Get There from Here” finds the band augmented by a horn section, though the way it’s used seems to mock the idea of the big-band flourish of old soul records. A banjo enters toward the end of “Wendell Gee,” plucking its doleful way around Stipe’s surreal, lachrymose fable about some back-country oddball. A cello’s murky drone seems to drag down and halt time in the unnerving, dirgelike “Feeling Gravitys Pull.” At one point in “Driver 8,” a faint harmonica conjures echoes of that folk-music staple, the train song, but the landscape passing by the locomotive’s windows seems bleak and decaying.
Mostly though, Fables is unretouched R.E.M. in all their rough-cut glory, swinging from contemplative, Byrds-like balladry (“Green Grow the Rushes,” “Good Advices”) to careening, maniacally driven numbers like “Auctioneer (Another Engine),” which is dense with the mad torque of guitars and drums and Stipe’s clenched, tense vocal. It appears to be about the strange motivations and betrayals that underlie a relationship as it comes undone, but who knows?
The guitars on “Maps and Legends” reverberate in the somber and grand-scale mode of the Waterboys and Richard Thompson. Here and elsewhere, Buck’s arpeggiated licks circle Maypole-style around the rhythm section’s tight foundation until the subject, or object, seems entirely wrapped. This inventiveness makes the R.E.M. of Fables of the Reconstruction sound surer than they did on Reckoning, closer to the insular mood weaving of Murmur.
“Can’t Get There from Here” is perhaps the boldest, most full-blooded song this band has recorded. With its scratch-funk guitar, bobbing bass line, spare yet potent drumming and Stipe’s enthralling vocal, it deserves to become a hit. It also sets a tone of dislocation that pervades the entire record. Backup voices sing, “I’ve been there, I know the way,” as Stipe growls contrarily, “Can’t get there from here.” The question is not only “How do we get there?” but “Where are we going?” Fables of the Reconstruction is an odyssey in search of a final destination.
And so it asks more questions than it answers. Listening to Fables of the Reconstruction is like waking up in a menacing yet wonderful world underneath the one we’re familiar with. R.E.M. undermines our certitude in reality and deposits us in a new place, filled with both serenity and doubt, where we’re forced to think for ourselves.