And so to the first R.E.M. album that disappointed me. I forget the order in which I acquired my collection, but it’s entirely plausible that I worked backwards through the I.R.S years, perhaps tentatively afraid that if I started at the beginning I’d only be setting myself up for disappointment. After all, surely it would take time for a band to develop a sound and work on their song-writing craft?
So I was a little naive and wrong-headed, as R.E.M.’s first two albums would later demonstrate. But if I was working backwards, then Document would have been fine and familiar, Life’s Rich Pageant would have been a rocky thrill-ride, but Fables of the Reconstruction just sounded like a muddy mess.
Whereas Murmur and Reckoning both start strong out of the gate, Bill Berry leading the way, the first sound you hear on Fables… is a disconcerting guitar riff, with these odd little harmonics falling out of it. It’s clear already that Fables… is not to be the concluding part of a trilogy of albums. Feeling Gravity’s Pull is harsh where the songs on Murmur and Reckoning were soft: but for a brief middle section it’s all sharp edges. One song later, though, things are starting to feel a bit more familiar. Both Maps and Legends and Driver 8 are in more familiar territory (one that would later come to be owned by The One I Love), and from then on it’s mostly good, solid, straightforward stuff. It’s even fun: Green Grow the Rushes is unashamedly bouncy, Can’t Get There From Here even borders on funky. And yet… and yet… there’s something vaguely unsettling about the whole sound of the album, as if instead of working together seamlessly, the band have been set against each other: sounds appear to overlap and distort each other instead of flowing alongside each other as they had done before.
Perhaps Feeling Gravity’s Pull has a purpose beyond the usual role of the album-opener. While it is unfamiliar and difficult to grasp both musically and lyrically, thematically it sets up the later mysticality: Maps and Legends, Good Advices, Wendell Gee - all create worlds and characters, but only intangibly and indirectly. It was as close as a broken-down Michael Stipe could get to opening up at this point. Still, in the middle of his brokenness, he conjures up an unlikely claim:
And if I write a book, it will be called Life And How To Live It
Can I be so bold as to suggest another title? How about Life’s Rich Pageant?