On July 13h, R.E.M. will rerelease the third album Fables of the Reconstruction as a deluxe edition which includes a bonus disc full of rarities and demos. Unlike the previous reissues of Murmur and Reckoning, the Fables edition does not include a live disc culled from that era. Those live discs were a fantastic memoir of showcasing how good a live band in the early 80’s R.E.M. was. The songs from those albums were written on the road and meant to be played live.
Fables, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast. R.E.M. has previously ventured in Americana on Reckoning, but with Fables they truly embraced the southern-gothic myth making their most American album, and perhaps the 80’s as well. (The irony, being the album was actually recorded in London.) R.E.M.’s version of Americana isn’t the deep blues of the South, but rather American folk. Combining it with their post-punk ethics and Michael Stipe’s sparse imagery and mumbled delivery, R.E.M. created an album that exists its own time-frame. As guitarist Peter Buck states on R.E.M.’s web-site about the album – “No one but R.E.M. could have made that album.”
“Driver 8” is perhaps the best known song from the album. The song contain numerous references to trains, and musically the song feels like a train ride across the South. It’s not as anthemic as “Born to Run”, but “Driver 8” is R.E.M.’s version of that song – the possibilities of the open-road – grabbing everything and making a run for it. Where “Born to Run”‘s narrator desperately tried to get Wendy to come with him in a car and just leave, the narrator in “Driver 8” is stuck on the train. But he likes it that way. He’s just observing the power-lines that have floaters, and being an eves-dropper on the argument between the train conductor and the infamous Driver 8. “Driver 8” brings you back to a world that’s gone, never to be seen again.
“Can’t Get There From Here”, while it doesn’t have the same feel as the rest of the album, retains the spirit of the American-journey about being at a cross-roads. It has a soul/funk feel – jangled pop R.E.M. style. I read about R.E.M. a few years ago that called this song one of their worst songs. “Can’t Get There From Here” is unlike R.E.M. song for sure, but it’s fun and R.E.M. isn’t exactly a light-hearted band. By the title, you could easily be mistaken that “Live and How To Live It” would be a preachy – but then this is R.E.M. in the 80’s and not U2 in the 80’s. A live recording of this song included on the bonus disc of the 80’s collection And I Feel Fine, begins with a monologue by Stipe. Stipe begins with a story about an old man who wrote hundreds of books, had them published, never gave one away and the title of the book was Life And How To Live It. Whether the story was true or not (you can never tell with Michael Stipe) it provides background for one of my favorite R.E.M. songs. “Keep these books well stacked and take your happy home,” Stipe sings in the first verse. If “Driver 8” was about escaping on an open-train, “Life and How to Live It” shows a person’s enjoyment of solitude and connection through books.
“Wendell Gee” the closer on Fables finds R.E.M. channeling their inner-Band and Gram Parsons. Unlike the rest of the album which found R.E.M. exploring Americana through their post-punk influence, “Wendell Gee” is a tune ripped straight from the southern Appalachian mountains. It’s a slow lament to an old man, propelled by Buck’s banjo. It’s a perfect end to an album where R.E.M. discovered themselves, tapped into their Southern roots, and created something truly original.