These days it sounds like exactly what it's title says...a fable, lost in time.
Chris Jones 2008
Three albums into their career and R.E.M were about to hit a crisis. As with many bands, a lot of their new material was gleaned from a world-view shaped by endless touring. Such is the lot of a young band. The American landscape seeps into both Stipe's lyrics and the band's jangly, electric folk. With this in mind, it must have made perfect sense to enlist the help of uber-folk-rock producer, Joe Boyd; the man who produced classics by Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson. Yet Boyd, though an American, was an Anglophile since his relocation to these isles in the 1960s, and the two camps had trouble communicating in the studio. Also, by recording in the UK, the band became homesick and stranded in a grey London in the grip of a fierce winter. It was a long way from sunny Athens, Georgia. Thus Fables... was recorded under a cloud, with tensions threatening to tear them apart.
In the end, Fables... is a murky, oblique take on some kind of mythologised southern rhetoric; filled with trains, old men passing tales around campfires and earthy, rural dadaism. Compared to the previous two albums there is a distinct shift in instrumentation, banjos appear (Wendell Gee) as well as a rather misjudged brass section in Can't get There From Here. Stipe's vocals are so muddy as to make interpretation of what he, himself, termed 'meaningless' lyrics frustrating. What does a line like "When you greet a stranger, look at her hands" really mean? It's the surface sound of his voice that matters here. An eery droning moan and whine that summons up visions of journeys yet to be completed.
Boyd's production is willfully flat - Peter Buck's guitar is a has one setting: Byrdsian - and one suspects that Bill Berry hated this album so much because he has so little to do on it. It can become a little wearing and you can sense the dispirited nature of the band's playing. Yet somehow it all fits the material. It's the sound of a band determined to develop yet not quite finding their next direction. As such, Fables...is a crucial part of R.E.M's growth. Ironically - considering the band's subsequent career arc - at the time its college rock austerity made a startling contrast to the stadium filling bombast of U2 and their ilk. These days it sounds like exactly what it's title says...a fable, lost in time.