R.E.M’s third album charts the band’s first steps beyond their jangly college-rock roots. Fables was their attempt to get out of a comfort zone, working with a “name” producer (Joe Boyd – best known for his work with Pink Floyd and Nick Drake) and recording away from home, in Boyd’s hometown of London. Members of R.E.M. have put the album down since then (Bill Berry once said it “sucked”) but I wonder if those feelings came from its tumultuous recording sessions, rather than the quality of the material. Sure, it’s moodier than Murmur or Reckoning, but the songs are as good as anything else from their IRS-era discography. “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, “Maps and Legends” and “Old Man Kensey” live up to the album’s ornery reputation, but they’re also essential parts of the band’s early years. Elsewhere, “Life and How To Live It”, “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” and “Can’t Get There From Here” recall the sound of their first two albums, but with a troubled undercurrent lurking beneath the surface. R.E.M. played five of the album’s eleven songs on 2009’s Live At The Olympia, so perhaps even they’ve been won over by its charms over the past quarter-century.
The new edition sports remastering, liner notes, and a second disc of previously unreleased demos. The demos sound similar to the finished product; although “Throw Those Trolls Away” hasn’t been released anywhere else. My only beef is with the over-sized cardboard box packaging, which is clumsy, hard to file on CD shelves, and exists only to house a 40-panel folded poster that feels like a waste of paper.