I must confess I was somewhat shocked at learning that the band didn't think much of this record. I know all their albums almost by heart now, and I always considered "Fables..." as one of REM's finest. I suppose this shows just how a work of art, once it is finished, becomes something that no longer belongs to its creators, and gains a life of its own. More than any other REM album, this is one to listen to from beginning to end, as one single story with several changes of mood.
In a way, the general mood of "Fables..." is quite similar to that of "Automatic for the people", somewhat dark and sad overall, but with a tiny light at the end of the tunnel. Personally, I think this record shows REM at their best: great songwriting, with exquisite melodies and cryptic lyrics that can mean almost anything (the title of this review, for example, is taken from "Kohoutek", and can be used to illustrate the band's disapproval of their own work).
It is quite difficult to point out the highlights of this album, but "Maps and legends", "Driver 8" and "Life and how to live it" are short masterpieces, and "Wendell Gee" is a little gem that shows just how much can be achieved with few materials: a fine example of Peter Buck's opinion of how simple songwriting should be. Granted, it might not be the perfect place to start, but it sure is one of the greatest to revisit again and again.