Album of the Week, February 23: Lifes Rich Pageant by R.E.M.

REMLRPComing together in the university town of Athens, GA, R.E.M. would quickly symbolize the growing “college rock” genre. Vocalist Michael Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck met in a local record store and bonded over common musical interests. They soon connected with bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry, who had been playing together since high school. They quartet formed the band R.E.M. and quickly developed a local following. Within three years they had released a single and an EP, signed with I.R.S. records, and recorded Murmur. One of the finest debut albums of all time, it seamlessly blended their fondness for jangle-pop, folk, garage rock, and southern Gothic literature. Their organic playing, augmented by Stipe’s vague vocals — both in terms of meaning and enunciation — caught the critics by surprise. Rolling Stone declared it Album of the Year (beating out both Thriller and Synchronicity) and R.E.M. were on their way. Reckoning followed, a great album that pales only in comparison to its predecessor. Fables of the Reconstruction found the band experimenting with their sound, intentionally creating more murky soundscapes. A solid offering, it was reasonably well received.

Title Lifes Rich Pageant
Act R.E.M.
Label I.R.S. Release Date July 28, 1986
Producer Don Gehman
U.S. Chart  21 U.K. Chart  43
Tracks
[US Hot 100]
  1. Begin the Begin
  2. These Days
  3. Fall On Me [#94]
  4. Cuyahoga
  5. Hyena
  6. Underneath the Bunker
  7. The Flowers of Guatemala
  8. I Believe
  9. What If We Give It Away?
  10. Just A Touch
  11. Swan Swan H
  12. Superman

Little in that trio of albums prepared listeners for the blast of sound on Lifes Rich Pageant. At its heart still a gothic jangle-pop gem, it brought the rhythm section forward and featured much clearer (if still often mysterious) vocals. The result is a rocking album that declared the diversity of the band, showing off their musical chops, political statements, and sheer joy in music.

Things kick off with Begin the Begin, a powerful mission statement for the album. Growling rather than mumbling, Stipe declares this to be an album of discovery. Its one of the band’s best early songs and shows off a tight group that had perfected their work together. These Days continues the declaration, offering warnings of an uprising to build a better world. Fall On Me is a song of environmental justice that somehow doubles as a sad love song. Another of the band’s best tracks, it was the disc’s only single. More overt, Cuyahoga celebrates the famous burning river with a perfect mix of the personal and political. Hyena hints at these themes of nature and environmental justice; it’s also great fun and harkens back to the garage gems the band loves. Side one wraps with the oddball Underneath the Bunker, a song of similar vein that works in context but offers the least in terms of the overall power of the album.

Nature returns in The Flowers of Guatemala, a haunting ballad that shows off the great harmonies that Stipe and Mills can create. I Believe is another mission statement, an oddly compelling list that captures the complexities of faith and inspiration. Lovely and optimistic, it buoys the album nicely; the opening banjo figure is a brilliant touch. What If We Give It Away? is a perfect follow-up, a quasi-socialist statement that ponders a world of selflessness and rejects materialism. Things liven up a gain musically with Just A Touch, a nice little rocker. Making sure to keep the southern gothic romanticism in the mix, Swan Swan H blends the naturalism of the album with a vaguely Civil War setting. It’s a beautiful, quirky song that aches with quiet power.

R.E.M. were noted for the wide variety of covers they performed live and included as B-sides and outtakes. Superman — originally by Texas garage popsters the Clique — is the first one to show up as a standard LP track. It’s a flawless song, featuring a rare lead vocal by Mike Mills. He tears it up gleefully, rounding out the disc with an overt nod to the band’s roots while leading the group through a reading that’s distinctly their own. R.E.M. would soon have a Top 10 album with a Top 10 single, followed by a lucrative (and productive) move to a major label. For this fourth disc, however, they declared themselves as concerned citizens, independent thinkers, and one truly great band.

FURTHER LISTENING: Over the course of 30 years and 15 original studio albums R.E.M. always had something interesting to offer. Even after making the difficult decision to carry on without Bill Berry — which admittedly diminished their power somewhat — they consistently turned out quality albums with at least a few real gems. Critics and fans debate the best of their output, with almost every disc showing up on somebody’s five-best-of-R.E.M. list. For me, the highlights (besides Murmur) are

  • New Adventures In Hi-Fi — overlooked and underrated, a complex, mature set of wonderful songs
  • Out of Time — their most commercial and in some ways most fun album
  • Accelerate — a fitting near farewell that showed they never lost their real spirit

As always, your mileage may vary.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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