That’s all relative, of course. I came to R.E.M. later than some (and well before most), jumping aboard with the band’s fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant in 1986. Falling in love, I quickly went back and picked up its debut, Murmur, and the third album, Fables (in a fit of Puritan delayed gratification that would never again govern my purchasing decisions, I held off on Reckoning in a bid to save a great R.E.M. record for later. I didn’t get it until my freshman year of college in 1988, after the disappointment that was Green). To me, Fables was another masterpiece. A bit more difficult than Pageant, but no less satisfying.
I later read (in books!) that the band was not satisfied with the album. I read about the difficult recording process during and English winter with producer Joe Boyd. I foolishly developed an antipathy toward Boyd (then learned of all that he had done that made such a stance ridiculous at best). None of this affected my enjoyment of the album, which continued unabated for two decades.
Now comes the 25th anniversary remastered/expanded version of the album, which sheds even more light on the process. Plenty has been written elsewhere that ought to be read by anyone even casually interested in the subject — the true value of most reissues is not the remastering or bonus tracks, but the renewed analysis that is broader and deeper than any contemporaneous efforts simply because of the benefit of critical distance.
My point to add to this conversation is this: What Boyd brought to the project was a subtle nudge that pushed the band’s evolution a couple of steps further than it might have taken otherwise. That might sound slight, but the impact was huge. Hearing demos for Fables’ songs, I’m struck by how much many of them sound like a direct extension of the sound of Reckoning. “Green Grow the Rushes,” for example, would have fit comfortably on that preceding album. Yes, the dissonance of “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” was new, as was the frenetic claustrophobia of “Life and How to Live It.” But hearing those demos, I can imagine a very different Fables that would like have pleased listeners at the time, but that would have been seen as a troubling holding pattern in the rearview.
The other point brought up by the demos, however, is that the band, contrary to guitarist Peter Buck’s liner notes that mention feeling unprepared for the pending recording session, show songs that nearly identical to their finished versions. The various parts are in place, the arrangements, for the most part, are set. On first listen, I wondered why the band felt the need to go to such lengths to record the album — literally by flying across the ocean, and figuratively by leaving the comfort of friends and using someone like Boyd.
But Boyd’s gift, at least in this case, was the ability to simultaneously protect what the band had already created while pushing it ever so subtly toward something a bit more challenging and new. The result is the one R.E.M. album I gravitate toward when I want to my music to confront me just a bit, to force me to work for my comfort. It would be more than a decade before the band would veer so far from the obvious with late-stage curve balls New Adventures in Hi Fi and Up. Like no album before or since in the band’s catalog, it is the one where the level of challenge yields the greatest reward.