Remembering the Reconstruction, or How I Stopped Being a Music Snob

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R.E.M., back when Michael Stipe was still mumbling
  • R.E.M., back when Michael Stipe was still mumbling

All music critics are music snobs at one point. In fact, it’s how most of us start out.

I became a music snob after hearing R.E.M.’s Murmur. Up until that point, I was happy to share my love of Elvis Costello, the Sex Pistols, and the Velvet Underground with anyone else who wanted to listen. But Murmur became a personal, almost private, thing for me — a sort of musical masturbation.

I spent countless hours listening to Murmur and its follow-up, Reckoning, alone in the dark, trying to make out just what the hell Michael Stipe was mumbling about underneath all that murky jangle (this was years before the Internet coughed up tons of misheard lyrics). The closer I listened, the deeper I got lost. (I still don’t know what “Harborcoat” is about.)

R.E.M. were my band. I got there first … with hundreds of other music snobs across the country, of course. But we were the cool kids. Nobody knew who R.E.M. were in my high school, and this made my band a hundred times cooler than anything you were listening to. If somebody said something about seeing one of their videos on MTV, I’d sneer something about Van Halen or Billy Joel.

Then R.E.M. released Fables of the Reconstruction, a crack in their then-flawless catalog and still one of R.E.M.’s thorniest albums. The production was punchier, but also, oddly, more confining. It was like they were trying to dismiss the mythical status they had built with their first two albums. It was like they were, gulp, looking for a hit. How else to explain the horns and cheery pop of “Can’t Get There From Here”?

Fables of the Reconstruction was recently reissued in an expanded 25th anniversary edition. And today it sounds like it was made by a band stuck between worlds. They were kings of the Amerindie scene back then, but they clearly wanted something bigger. They got it a few years later, when they signed a gazillion-dollar deal with Warner Bros. Right around the same time, I stopped being an annoying music snob and became an annoying music critic. —Michael Gallucci

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