"Over the years a certain misapprehension about Fables Of The Reconstruction has built up. For some reason, people have the impression the members of R.E.M. don't like the record. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's a doomy, psycho record, dense and atmospheric. It creates its own strange little world, illogical but compelling. It's a personal favorite, and I'm really proud of how strange it is. Nobody but R.E.M. could have made that record."Fans of R.E.M. might be forgiven for thinking the band held the album in less than the highest regard given all of the ambivalent to negative comments certain band members have made about the album over the years. But Buck goes on to make the very important point that the way the band feels about the album is inextricably tied to the circumstances surrounding its creation:
"All four of us were completely out of our minds at the time. We had just spent four straight years on the road; we were tense, impoverished, certifiable, and prime candidates for rehab. And it was cold. My main memory of that period is making the hour commute to Wood Green on the Tube and then walking for twenty minutes through invariably inclement weather, usually sleet."Likewise, how the average R.E.M. fan feels about Fables Of The Reconstruction is no doubt inextricably bound to the circumstances under which they first heard it, and their memories of that time period.
I had just turned 16 when I picked up Fables at my local Sam Goody. I have a memory of listening to the album on my walkman as my Mom drove me home. I can still smell that "new cassette" smell if I concentrate hard enough when listening to the opening chords of "Feeling Gravitys Pull." Personally, Fables is my favorite R.E.M. album. But then it was also the first R.E.M. album I bought, and the strange and compelling "dense and atmospheric" music contained within it opened up a whole new world of music for me.
Soon after I purchased Fables, I picked up R.E.M.'s earlier releases. After that, there was a virtual cascade of intriguing new music finding its way into my walkman. Peter Buck played mandolin on "I Will Dare" by The Replacements, so I picked up Let It Be. He produced The Good Earth by The Feelies, so I got that. I heard Wire and The Soft Boys were an influence on R.E.M., so albums by those bands were soon in my collection as well. Those purchases drove me in a hundred new directions that I am still branching out from today.
But for me, R.E.M.'s Fables Of The Reconstruction is still there at the root of it all. I don't think it is any kind of exaggeration to say that the album changed my life. And I still regard Fables Of The Reconstruction as one of the finest rock albums ever made. I like it as much or more than anything recorded by The Beatles, or anyone else.
The 25th Anniversary edition adds a bonus disc of demos that were recorded in Athens, GA before the band left to record Fables with famed producer Joe Boyd in London. Buck remembers the band as being hard up for new songs after exhausting their stockpile of songs on the first two albums, and feeling "dangerously unprepared" as the band departed to London, a view he was forced to revise upon listening to the demos again. Maybe R.E.M. really were exhausted, drugged-out and low on inspiration at the time, but from the audio evidence available from the demos they sound like a band in complete control of their destiny and bursting with musical ideas. Perhaps they were receiving divine guidance. Most of the arrangements for the songs were already worked out, and I suspect Boyd's role in shaping the album was minimal, more along the lines of helping the band realize the sound they were searching for than providing direction.
R.E.M. would never again record an album remotely like Fables Of The Reconstruction, and for me personally their music would become less compelling over the years as their commercial fortunes expanded. Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed much of the music they've created since Fables, it's just that I never again loved it or was fully captivated by it in quite the same way. Perhaps that would have been asking too much, especially considering that their music could never again be new to me in the same way.
The remastered sound of the new CD is yet another example of the trend toward excessive dynamic compression of reissues. The reissue is around 7 to 8 dB louder on average than the original, although it sounded fine to me while listening to it in the noisy environment of my car. However, I'm a little skeptical that the sound quality will hold up as well for me on my home stereo. Perhaps the best part of the beautifully executed box that the remastered set comes in is that there is room in it for a CD-R needledrop of the album.
Update: After listening to the album on the stereo I suspect only the very pickiest of audiophiles would seriously object to the sound quality of the remaster. Despite the fact that it is more compressed than what I would consider ideal, the overall result is still very good.