Song du semaine: R.E.M., "Maps and Legends"

Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M.’s third full-length album after the jangle-pop masterpieces Murmur and Reckoning, has inspired as much argument as any piece of music since Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Where Stravinsky started riots with his full-bore assault on the conventions of tonality and rhythm, R.E.M. wrote an enigmatic collection of Southern stories that expanded their sonic palette in several directions.

It’s a little shocking at first, with Peter Buck’s friendly guitar unleashing a peal of distortion and dissonance in Feeling Gravity’s Pull. Somehow, the album also includes the bouncy rocker Can’t Get There From Here along with a host of folky tunes, some even going so far to include a banjo.

And yet it’s coherent. Most of the album has something to do with being lost and seeking direction, and it’s steeped in Southern folklore. (On the cover art, as any R.E.M. fan will tell you, it’s clear that the title can be reversed into Reconstruction of the Fables.) Southerners are friendly folks who are more than happy to point you in the right direction — if there is one.

In hindsight, it’s a brilliant album. The songs have lyrical gems and subtle hooks propelled along by Mike Mills’ unique approach to bass, which serves as a sort-of lead instrument just as it did on the last two albums.

The singles from this one were Can’t Get There From Here and Driver 8. The latter is more representative of the album as a whole.

But this one’s even better. Mills and Buck conjure a sound like a fog-shrouded road. Michael Stipe’s lyrics and delivery hit the theme of being lost, but they go a step further, as if to ask, “Are you sure how to read the map? Are you sure what you’re looking for?”

None of Stipe’s early lyrics were direct. You’re not really supposed to know if he’s talking about anything specific. Apply it any time you think someone isn’t quite grasping history or geography. Or maybe the record isn’t quite accurate.

The video is a live performance from Germany in 1985. Not much difference between this and the studio version.


One thought on “Song du semaine: R.E.M., "Maps and Legends"

  1. I went to see them in Atlantic City in 2004 and they threw this in about eight songs into the set. I loved it. That is one of the things that makes their shows so special – when they pick a spot in the set to drop in a song they don’t play that often, but conjures up all kinds of memories for people who have followed them for years.

    Hearing “Maps and Legends” that night almost made up for “Boy in the Well” and “I Wanted to be Wrong.”

    Almost. 🙂

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