R.E.M. Fables of the Reconstruction Review

Released 2010.  

BBC Review

A dark, dangerous but delightful record that’s as good – if not better – than new.

Mischa Pearlman 2010

Now into the fourth decade of their career, it’s easy to forget the significance of R.E.M.’s music, especially the five albums released on IRS Records. Murmur, their seminal debut album, was released in 1983. Twenty-five years later, in 2008, a deluxe anniversary edition was brought out, newly remastered, with a bonus live concert. Similarly last year, to celebrate its quarter-century, their second album Reckoning was reissued with another live album. Presumably this will continue each year until their last album for IRS, Document, turns 25, by which time the series of 30th anniversary editions will have probably begun.

The remarkable thing is that Murmur, Reckoning and now, in 2010, Fables of the Reconstruction (or Reconstruction of the Fables – the cover was designed so that the title becomes an infinite, unending loop) sound not just old albums reborn, but like brand new ones. Part of that is down to the remastering – which makes Fables… sound bolder and crisper than it did before – but really, it’s testament to the timeless nature of Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe’s songwriting.

This third effort marked a change in direction for the band, who infused its 11 songs with dark, unsettling undertones. It begins with the metallic sheen of Feeling Gravity’s Pull, the sound of a slow-motion apocalypse, an iron world rusting. Old Man Kensey extends that sense of impending doom, while Auctioneer (Another Engine) and Kohoutek are full of a nervous, jittery energy. Maps and Legends, Driver 8 and the hypnopompic lament of Wendell Gee recall the jangly guitars and slight country twang of those first two albums, but they still sound somewhat twisted and deranged.  Overall, Fables is the embodiment of confusion, of minds and worlds unsure about their futures, a sense of foreboding intensified by Stipe’s oblique, muddied lyrics.

This reissue comes with The Athens Demos, a second disc containing 14 cuts – including the full album in embryonic form, two other demos and one previously unreleased song. Although the versions here lack the dark magic of those on the album, there’s an unnerving, lo-fi bleakness to these recordings which adds to their apocalyptic nihilism. If that wasn’t enough, it all comes packaged in a deluxe mini boxset with new liner notes, postcards and a poster. A dark, dangerous but delightful record that’s as good – if not better – than new.

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