With R.E.M. now “retired” we look back to their early days, in honor of their greatness. This review of their third album comes from The Washington Post, June 13, 1985 by Joe Sassy…
There is an ominous, reverberating guitar figure opening the first side of the new R.E.M. album Fables of the Reconstruction (IRS-5592) that, like the creepy theme to Perry Mason, is a bone-chilling introduction to mystery. Even granting lead singer Michael Stipe his characteristic burry unintelligibility, the third album from this much-heralded Georgia quartet asserts its musical magic on terms darker and more elusive than ever.
Eschewing radio-tailored accessibility and immediacy, Fables of the Reconstruction unfolds a dense and colorful rock tapestry, every bit as involving as a riddle with no solution. Traveling to England to work with producer Joe Boyd represents a significant change in R.E.M.’s typical southern recording strategy. Boyd, known for his work with Celtic rocker Richard Thompson, has deepened the band’s sound, moving it from its cheerier folk-rock heritage toward the more foreboding temper of Celtic culture and mythology.
The few explicit production touches Boyd does provide — the violins ending “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” the fat soul horns that fade out “Can’t Get There from Here” and the plucky banjo coursing through “Wendell Gee” — work like musical echoes of something buried in the past. Stipe’s voice, too — crying, moaning, humming and floating through the band’s overgrown thicket of guitar, bass and drums — sounds like a weary soul in search of something missing.
As always, Stipe’s lyrics are mostly indecipherable, but what surfaces carries the provocative and allusive character of dream fragments. In “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” Stipe moans, “Gravity’s pulling me around,” and later, “Oceans fall, mountains drift.” Throughout Fables, the music moves as if pulled by unconscious forces beyond the band’s control. If the album title can be read explicitly, then these songs are the emotional fallout from an old South struggling for a place in a new America.
This theme is overt in the album’s last song, a sad eulogy to one of those folksy characters, “Wendell Gee,” who used to signify America at its most independent and eccentric. The album’s catchiest rocker, “Can’t Get There from Here,” is even more painfully evocative. Set on a kinetic funk guitar riff, the song establishes a distraught dialogue, Stipe crying “Can’t get there from here” while the band teasingly answers, “I’ve been there, I know the way.”