R.E.M. continued their slow progression towards mainstream success, although they remained true to their college-radio roots more allegiantly than U2 when they released “Fables of the Reconstruction”. As I listen to each of these early R.E.M. albums, I keep hoping for that really strong collection of songs I know and don’t know that indicate their first consistent display of greatness, but three albums in, and I’m still only partly sold. Even today, the band is somewhat dismissive of this album in comparison to other efforts.
The jangly guitar and bass-driven melodies still prevail, although there is a greater diversity of songs on this album. It opens with a relatively dark guitar riff on “Feeling Gravitys Pull”, describing the sensation we feel as we first drift off to sleep. “Maps and Legends” is a more traditional R.E.M. song, and the next song, “Driver 8”, which was the second single from the album is exactly the kind of song that drew me to this band. Crisp, pure and powered by a driving three-part of guitar, bass, and drums, there is an energy and an innovation to this sound that was a beacon within a sea of diverging absurdities in the mid-1980s.
You can hear some of the same raw urgency on “Life and How to Live It”, which I like better than the slower and darker “Old Man Kensey”. The signature song from the album, and also the first single, “Can’t Get There From Here”, is an up-tempo rocker like “Driver 8” with a great riff and an unusual backing harmony on the chorus from Michael Mills. Pretty simply, if you loved R.E.M., you probably loved this song.
The rest of the album is OK but not great, and my favorite other tracks are “Green Grow the Rushes” and the slow ballad, “Wendell Gee”. Will R.E.M. deliver that near-perfect album from front to back without completely selling out their roots and raw sound? Time will tell.