Monday, May 25, 2015
R.E.M.: Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
"I've seed de first en de last...I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin'."
The above comes from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, not at all coincidentally the original title of R.E.M.'s third album, which in the end received a name equally indicative of its concern with the Southern identity. It's a circular title; it can be Fables (as in Uncle Remus) of the Reconstruction or it can be Reconstruction of the Fables, but in fact it is both infinitely, a title that goes on forever and is reproduced as such on the nearly incomprehensible album sleeve. The flexibility may be pretentious, as may be Michael Stipe's description of the album's sound: "It reminds me of two oranges being stuck together with a nail." The things adorning the heart of the record are clumsy and confused, but that is a natural result of a strength in atmosphere and surrealism that perhaps even the band itself didn't fully understand. Musically, this is one of the few rock albums of its period in which everything seems studied, devised, proper, all to serve a central idea: the immersion into Heaven and Hell, sound and fury, comfort and terror of the Deep South.
The South is a place of secret histories, the antithesis of the entirely human nature to gather and store knowledge of the outside. It is the last place in America where reality can be completely overtaken by eccentricity, willful isolation, de-evolution. It would be pointless to elaborate extensively on how R.E.M.'s Fables is not just a Southern album (recorded in London, in fact) but an album about the South... the definitive writing has already been done by Marcus Gray, in his "About the Place Where You Live" chapter of It Crawled from the South. Nevertheless, the issue is impossible to avoid in a record so dominated by Southern images and characters, by the highest level of disorientation achieved by any American band.
"Feeling Gravitys Pull" may have little to do with Faulkner, but it remains the random shreds of rantings and ravings of a deluded man beyond help, the necessary entrance to an alternate universe. "Driver 8" and "Auctioneer" are train songs, the box cars pulling out of town. "Maps and Legends," "Good Advices," and "Green Grow the Rushes" are Appalachian folk songs. "Life and How to Live It" is a song about a bizarre, deeply racist man who split his house into two halves and wrote a book (Life: How to Live) about his philosophies. "Old Man Kensey" and "Wendell Gee" are both also about deep South weirdos, the former a dogcatcher who used to hide in a coffin and scare children, the latter a man who ran a car dealership and whose entire family dominated the businesses of the tiny town of Philomath, referenced in "Cant Get There from Here." The entire experience is a dream, not accidentally. The first words spoken on Side One are "I fell asleep," the random information sliding in and out of the speakers (and the sensory overload of the end of the opening track) are evidence of the degree to which the band and the producer Joe Boyd fought for a completely heightened, disarming experience; after the more haphazard Reckoning, the band has returned to the mystery of Murmur with a newfound tendency toward the macabre that would remain untapped for the rest of their career.
Michael Stipe described the musical inspiration as "someone with an old tape recorder recording an old man with a fiddle, with a woman in the background with her hand on the stove." The juxtaposition of this with the dirty Tom Verlaine guitar of "Feeling Gravitys Pull," the New Orleans funk of "Cant Get There from Here," and the unfiltered electric terror of "Old Man Kensey" is only superficial; all three songs present conventionally youthful entrances into deeply unusual but identifiably ancient ideas, the central notion behind rock & roll in the very beginning. Fables is a far more difficult recording than Murmur, for reasons that may at first be tough to determine: Listen to the sparkling production and harmonies of "Maps and Legends," so far from the earlier album's mud and mush. But the band has been taken over; not content to merely make an impression, they are now performing. The overpowering chorus of "Maps and Legends" is alien, stunning, unexpected even years later. Its power is nearly subliminal; the listener is overwhelmed, a feature inherent in one gorgeous song that becomes increasingly important as the album progresses. The glory of "Maps" and the two other pure folk songs, "Green Grow the Rushes" and "Good Advices," is in their simplicity of emotion, in which lies an improbable elegance. The majesty and mystery of "Legends" would be remarkable enough even if not complemented by the sing-song grace of the two later songs. "Advices" is amusing and offhanded, but "Rushes" is a masterpiece of sorts, perhaps not on a scale with "Maps and Legends" but certainly impressive in its fusion of distant worlds with the bracing clarity of feeling in the bass, guitar, and harmony vocals.
On "Old Man Kensey," a remarkable piece of fully tangible atmosphere, the lyrics are fine (as studied below), but the story is told well enough by the performances, not even so much the music. The way the guitars and bass are presented offer the strongest case for Kensey as a breathing human, the precise double tracking of the guitar line evocative of a long-ago whisper from David Byrne: "Someone controls electric guitar!" R.E.M. defines performance art here, a point driven home by the way that Fables stands apart from everything else in their catalog; all of them are performances, and all are entirely convincing.
Michael Stipe is perhaps on an equal level of importance here with Mike Mills and Peter Buck (something that would change with Lifes Rich Pageant, which owes much of its greatness to Stipe), but his vocals are what truly sell the record. On many of the songs, he calls to mind an early lyric (from "Pilgrimage") that mentioned "speaking in tongues." Perversely, Stipe dominates several of the songs because he is himself dominated by the music, his body and mind taken over until what he sings, rather than what he says, is a direct product of what circles around him, unadorned by conscious thought, entirely informed by rawness of emotion. "Life and How to Live It" is the most soaring example, an exhilarating and horrifying song that finds both Stipe and the listener gradually taken over by the beautifully sustained intensity that builds and builds until an explosion of babbling ("the air quicken thicken tension build and then suddenly"), at the point of which it is verifiable that Stipe and the audience are feeling and experiencing exactly the same thing, an identification established in "Maps and Legends" that becomes almost unbearable when confronted with the cathartic devastation of "Kensey." It becomes difficult to separate the music from oneself, to distinguish the otherworldly environment -- real as it is -- from one's own. "Spooky gospel" was how the band described it then. "Spooky gospel" it remains, and the speaking in tongues continues with the deliberately unpleasant, uncompromisingly bleak vocal line of "Auctioneer (Another Engine)," a song of rolling around in agony, a song of being tied to the tracks, of certain doom, of the darkest of dread.
Indeed, the problem of Fables of the Reconstruction is ultimately that the band can't keep up with Stipe. Everyone is in unison at first, but as in many other cases, the formula breaks down on the second half; it seems wasteful for themes and structures to be established with such care only to be eventually ignored. Two of the strongest songs on Side Two break the album's mold uncomfortably. On vinyl, it might be easy enough to overlook this, with "Can't Get There from Here" easing the audience from a familiar world to an alien one, but on CD, the lack of space between is crippling, even after the threatening "Kensey." "Feeling Gravitys Pull" has already set the scene; after a recording as evocative and intriguing as "Old Man Kensey," an equally brilliant but far more lightweight song like "Can't Get There from Here" simply can't keep up the pace, not even so much because of the R&B influence as because of its affecting of an outsider rather than an insider perspective, and the strong separation of listener from narrator, a line that was blurred and destroyed by "Maps and Legends," "Old Man Kensey," and "Life and How to Live It" in an impressive feat of performance and storytelling.
Every song on the first half shared a sense of menace, even the single "Driver 8," a haunting thematic "summing up" of the album. There is no such string tying together the rest of the material. "Green Grow the Rushes" is bleak but comfortable, "Good Advices" weird but hardly disconcerting. "Kohoutek" is completely divided from the rest of the album, an atypical love song, except on the point of the vocals. While not bad, it is doomed to be indistinct in this environment. "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" is an unworthy rock diversion despite the intrigue of the vocals, the album's own "Second Guessing." And "Wendell Gee" is the album's only note of absolute fakery, though it made a fine single and contains the album's only moments of charm, but more ominously its only moments of sap, despite some unforgettably disturbing images of chicken wire and appealingly incomplete backwoods phrases of almost barbaric nature ("he was rare to give respect"). Clever as it is, it doesn't do half as much work as the best songs on the record, saved narrowly from schlock by the exquisite hollering of Bill Berry (not the cloying banjo solo by Peter Buck, the opposite of the charm of "Rockville," recalling the type of material a band that had never been to the South might play to imitate the sound of the region). The lamenting a dead but kind-hearted weirdo may be more pleasant than the lamenting of the insanity of a live one, but all of the emotion in "Wendell Gee" is processed and secondhand. The same cannot be said of "Life and How to Live It" or "Old Man Kensey," both of which strive so completely for the direct transference of trepidation if not fear, disorientation if not insecurity. The effect may be colder, but the stronger achievement is clear.
However, "incomplete" is an important description because it is so accurate an articulation of why Michael Stipe's lyrics (when they are important) work so well. These are more direct narratives than anything on Chronic Town, Murmur or Reckoning, but Stipe noted correctly that they are by no means conventional story-songs. They don't have a beginning, a climax, an end. They are "a slice somewhere out of the middle." This is what gives the random imagery, the folky portraits of characters and behaviors in a strongly traditional oral-storytelling flavor, its power and its genuine nature. "Old Man Kensey" and the antihero of "Life and How to Live It" sound like people who actually exist (which they did), not pawns forced into a balladeer's one-dimensional stories (like, for instance, the story of "Wendell Gee," who in fact did not die until ten years after the song was written). It's interesting to note, too, how vital the interplay is between Stipe's singing and his words. When read, the lines "Those who know what I don't know, point to the yellow, red, and green" and "Keep these books well stocked away and take your happy home" have no meaning, make no impression; when he sings them, they are standout moments of tongue-rolling beauty and satisfaction, of comfortable sing-song invitation. The sense of melody provided by Mills plays an equal part, but it's highly evident on this record how much a knowing, intelligent vocal performance can enliven a seemingly useless line into something sublime. It would be easy to misread this as a criticism of the lyrics; in fact, it's a compliment to Stipe's intrepid genius as a writer, his understanding of the three-way interactions between lyric and music and vocals, of what sounds good not on paper but when sung.
Stipe fills "Driver 8" and "Can't Get There from Here" with witty southern terminology but takes each song, very similar on paper, to entirely different places, and ensures that every word of "Life and How to Live It" adds to the urgency. "Wendell Gee" may be a fun but empty exercise in cushiness, but it does hit a note of genuine feeling in the simple line "There wasn't even time to say goodbye," which rings woundingly true despite all else. None of this is to suggest that Stipe always makes the right decision. His character portrait of Old Man Kensey is almost oppressively evocative and Roald Dahl scary, listing the occupations Kensey "wants to be": A dog catcher, a sign painter. But he can't be these things; first he's got to learn to read, or count. In a throwback moment of apparent panic, Stipe adds that Kensey also "wants to be a goalie." A goalie!? That feels false, as if the opposite of the mentioned bit of "Wendell Gee" that defies criticism. It's the only second of disappointing self-conscious doubt in a song that otherwise maintains itself perfectly.
R.E.M. had broken with their regular producers and their regular location to make this album with Boyd in England, and they nearly broke completely, according to legend. The band later shunned the album, but if not their best, it may easily be their most fascinating, certainly in the way it is seeped in legends and harsh realities of the Deep South, a region of endless fascination, stories winding up and down through centuries, beautiful and ghostly and surreal. So completely was the band taken over by these ideas, it invaded everything up to their promotional handouts (a tour poster from the time features a chilling Southern Gothic woodcut-type image of a man filling his family's turn-of-the-century vehicle with petrol). The only criticism of any real significance for this album is the way it sets up so many ideas that have potential to stretch and expand the boundaries of a rock LP, then forgets most of them. In practice, it isn't a major problem, but on their next two records, R.E.M. offered songs that could easily have repaired it. With "Swan Swan H," "King of Birds," and "Oddfellows Local 151," Fables could have been nearly perfect, despite Stipe's statement that "Oddfellows" was a "debunking" of Fables. That may have been the best case for its inclusion. Myth-making is the essence of rock & roll, but there is equal vitality in the destruction of those same myths.
As such, Fables cannot be described as kaleidoscopic, but it's as strong a statement any band could make on myth making and myth destruction, and the equal importance of each. They had taken "spooky gospel" as far as it would go, as far as it will ever go. The album precludes the need for more like it, because it is a work of such conceptual exploration and depth that it can offer a permanent sense of discovery.
[Originally posted elsewhere in 2005.]