Fables of the Reconstruction
, 1985. Produced by Joe Boyd
- Feeling Gravity's Pull
- Maps and Legends
- Driver 8
- Life And How To Live It
- Old Man Kensey
- Can't Get There From Here
- Green Grow The Rushes
- Auctioneer (Another Engine)
- Good Advices
- Wendell Gee
"I'd like it here if I could leave
And see you from a long way away"
Recorded in London of all places (and in a notoriously difficult situation, with the nervous breakdown of frontman/lyricist Michael Stipe), this is R.E.M.'s "southern" album--that is, the sound and lyrical content of the record seem influenced by and focused on rural and southern themes. It is an exercize in and culmination of R.E.M.'s Southern Gothic themes, begun on Chronic Town in 1982.
The title of the album reflects this: Fables of the Reconstruction, refering to the Reconstruction era of the 1870s. However, one can also read it as Reconstruction of the Fables, due to the packaging: on the lp, both the back and the front are treated as front covers, one side reading "Fables of the Reconstruction" and the other side "Reconstruction of the Fables." Also, on the tape, the "of the" boxes in both sides of "Reconstruction" and "Fables." Indeed, the album is often called such overseas. This is also an appropriate title, as the Southern Gothic theme seeks to reconstruct a fabled past--the Gone with the Wind glory, the days on the plantation and ol' massah--which never was. R.E.M. maintains that the title is "Reconstruction of the Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables of the..." and so on, and even backwards.
The album begins with a protagonist caught by the elements--"Feeling Gravity's Pull" While it name-check's Man Ray (who was not southern, but from my hometown of Philadelphia), this serves to paint a surrealist picture where "Oceans fall and mountains drift." The world is in upheaval for this person, and much like William Faulkner's Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury, he cannot percieve the world as it is, but as a jumble of space and time.
What follows then are songs about time and place, moreover about the need to escape. In "Maps and Legends" we are told of a place that's "Not to be reached anymore"--a theme echoed (however more humourously) in "Can't Get There From Here." In "Driver 8" and "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" we have trains as a mode of escape--the railroads becoming a dominant force in the post-Civil War era of U.S. history. "Life and How to Live It," "Old Man Kensey" and "Wendell Gee" are all portraits of smalltown eccentrics, much like those in the stories of Faulkner, or Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. "Green Grow the Rushes" recalls an old folk song, while "Kohoutek" sings of Jacob and Esau--an appropriate pair of brothers in light of the Civil War/War Between the States.
The album can be seen as a darker, homesick version of the themes of their first album Murmur--for while the first album was a soft-psychadelic pastoral of the Southern Gothic concept, this album is darker, distant, its themes geared more towards both wanting to be in this decay and wanting to escape it.1
But what is important to me, the song which seems to sum up the album most, is the song "Good Advices":
At the end of the day
When there are no friends
When there are no lovers
Who are you going to call for?
* * *
I'd like it here if I could leave
And see you from a long way away
For this is the meaning of romanticism--it isn't real. And the romanticism of the South, this nostalgia that R.E.M. was feeling in England for Georgia, was shocked back into place by this realization. It is a dark record, one of their darkest, questioning the reality of home, while at the same time questioning the pleasure of escape.
1. Thanks go to CloudStrife
for pointing this out, and for the "softly psychadelic" concept.