There’s a moment on “Maps & Legends,” just before R.E.M. launches into that harmonized chorus, when you can barely make out Michael Stipe singing, “Can’t you see …” It’s low in the mix, almost subliminal. You might listen to the song hundreds of times without catching it (like I did).
But on the remastered 2xCD edition of “Fables of Reconstruction,” the 1985 album on which “Maps” originally appeared, that minor vocal aside is much more prominent without throwing the song off-balance, much more noticeable without being intrusive. Like “Murmur” and “Reckoning,” “Fables” has been sensitively remastered to build on the originals without making them sound foreign. Granted, none of R.E.M.’s early albums need the spit-shine, but the process reveals so many new details and idiosyncrasies that the records sound fresh again.
For “Fables,” the band worked with legendary producer Joe Boyd, who had manned the boards for Pink Floyd‘s first single and helmed landmark albums by Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band. He plays close attention to Peter Buck’s guitar, lovingly emphasizing its rich tone and darting rhythms. It still jangles, but also rumbles, slices, coils and careens. With those heraldic notes that kick off opener “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” — newly buffed to capture every chiming nuance — Boyd reintroduced R.E.M. as a guitar band.
“Fables” captures the energy of the band’s live performances naturalistically, with especially “Can’t Get There From Here” and “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” evoking the rowdiness and verve the goup brought to the stage. On the former, the low reed instruments burble more menacingly, blurting and belching atonally in a veiled nod to New Orleans jazz.
Boyd doesn’t quite know what to do with drummer Bill Berry, whose rhythms typically shape and streamline R.E.M.’s songs but sound a bit sluggish here. On the other hand, he does highlight the range of Stipe’s voice and the unusual ways he used it: the strange ascending slurs on “Green Grow the Rushes,” the jokey asides on “Can’t Get There,” the surprisingly versatile falsetto on “Kohoutek.” It’s hard to believe the mumbler of “Chronic Town” could sound so bold and expressive.
As a lyricist, Stipe continues to map the world around him, bridging Old South concerns with New South realities. “Good Advices” and “Life and How to Live It” offer up a previous generation’s etiquette (“When you greet a stranger, look at her hands”), but Stipe never accepts or rejects the tips. He finds them both wise and hollow, useless but pretty.
That idea carries over to “Wendell Gee,” one of the band’s best album closers. A dreamlike piece of Southern magical realism, it’s a lovely valedictory, especially when an ancient banjo enters and plucks out a mournful accompaniment — the old intruding on the new.
If this remaster makes the band sound as full and sophisticated as ever, the bonus disc of contemporaneous demos strips the songs down their barest melodies and themes, presenting the songs in their early austere forms. Together, these two discs represent a before-and-after snapshot of “Fables,” revealing just how far the band developed these songs and just how malleable these compositions are, how limitless the possibilities.
Compared to similar remasters of “Murmur” and “Reckoning,” “Fables” is a very different type of reissue: Whereas R.E.M.’s first two albums are generally considered classics of Southern post-punk, their third has never enjoyed such a lofty reputation. So this set is less of a reminder and more of an argument — and a highly persuasive one at that. Sounding both more revealing and more mysterious, it is every bit the equal of its predecessors and sets just as strong a standard for subsequent albums.
Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner
Photo by Ed Colver