Thirty years ago, R.E.M. released Fables of the Reconstruction. The album has taken almost mythic qualities among the band’s canon over time, mainly because no discussion can avoid the problems the band had during the recording process.
In short, they were stuck in England where the weather was horrible and producer Joe Boyd pushed them in ways that they had never been pushed before. While the band has often talked about the difficult time they had making the album, it may have been the most important point of their career. The songs on Fables are either classics or underappreciated gems. After the album and subsequent tour, the band took a different tack and recorded their next album in Indiana with Don Gehman.
That produced Life’s Rich Pageant, my pick for their best-ever work, and they never looked back.
But we’re here to talk about Fables, which starts with “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” a song which lets you know that it may not be an easy road ahead. That turns into “Maps and Legends,” which turns into the iconic “Drive 8,” making you understand that the guys that threw together Reckoning in just a few weeks had grown up into something special.
Fables has layers upon layers of greatness, the coyness of “Green Grown the Rushes” mixed with the haunting images from “Wendell Gee” and the bouncy goofiness of “Can’t Get There From Here.”
But the song that follows “Driver 8” on the first side of the record is the one that always stays with me. “Life and How to Live It” represents the greatness that R.E.M. started to achieve for many reasons.
- The guitar line has the sound of something powerful, but is, in reality, pretty simple. I can even play a rudimentary version of it
- The story behind the song is classic Michael Stipe – take a nugget of a weird story and turn it into something complex, yet catchy. He tells some of it on a live version of the song from 1987, but this Flickr page covers it pretty well.
- The live version makes you realize the power of the band in concert. They have played it twice at shows I have attended. The first one, in Pittsburgh in 1989, escapes me. The second time came at the beginning of the encore at the Patriot Center in 2003 on their “Best Of” tour. It blew me away. Looking back at old clips, the song has always had this power. The first clip below is from 1985, the second from that 2003 tour (this time in Madrid). Sit back and enjoy.