“Nobody but R.E.M. could have made that record,” proudly proclaims Peter Buck in the liner notes to the 25th Anniversary deluxe edition of Athens guitar great’s “personal favorite” in his longtime band’s canon, 1985’s Reconstruction of the Fables (Deluxe Edition released July 13 on IRS/EMI). Produced in London by legendary British rock luminary Joe Boyd, who co-founded the mythical English underground nightspot the UFO Club and helmed records for such names as Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and the Incredible String Band, R.E.M.’s third is a dark, cryptic and moody song cycle with experimental sonic textures and psych-folk overtones that evoke a thinking man’s mental tour across the landscape of the rural American South of the band members’ collective youth.
It is also their most difficult and challenging record to wit, certainly not one to recommend for those who jumped aboard the Stipe/Buck/Berry/Mills express when the band finally broke through to the mainstream with 1991’s Out of Time. This gorgeously packaged two-disc box is by far the most lavish of the R.E.M. reissues to date, arriving encased in a flip-top box complete with cool postcards, a poster and a booklet containing excellent and insightful liner notes from Mr. Buck, not to mention a phenomenal remastering job of the original LP that sounds eons better than it ever has.
However, the gimme of this set is far and away the second disc that contains the much-mythologized Athens Demos, the recordings the band worked up prior to flying out to London to enter the studio with Boyd. Featured here is the entirety of Fables stripped of all the production fanfare and exhibiting a raw, live-in-the-moment sound that gives deeper cuts like Good Advices, Kohoutek and Life and How to Live It more prominence and immediacy than on the original record, where they are overshadowed by stronger tracks like Driver 8, Maps and Legends, Green Grow The Rushes and Feeling Gravity’s Pull. Also included from these Athens sessions is Bandwagon, a b-side to the album’s biggest single, Can’t Get There From Here, that also appeared on the excellent 1987 rarities compilation Dead Letter Office, an early take on Hyena that would later find its way onto 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant and the real treasure, a completely unreleased track from these sessions called Throw Those Trolls Away, previously titled on bootlegs as When I Was Young.
Fables of the Reconstruction might not be R.E.M.’s best album (that, at least in my opinion, remains Green), but it certainly is the band’s most storied and challenging title, even 25 years later, and it remains the dividing line separating the Georgia boys’ true fans from those who caught on about ten years too late.