R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant

Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)


1. Begin The Begin 2. These Days 3. Fall On Me 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


Demonstrating that the guy sitting in the producer’s chair makes a pretty big difference to the way these guys make records, Lifes Rich Pageant is a focused, brittle rock album. Unsurprising, after they jettisoned Boyd and his murky folk rock stew and teamed up with John Mellencamp’s producer Don Gehman. Smell like Pageant had the makings of some yummy crass commercialism soup to you? Well, if it does, think about this. This album came out in 1986, when Mr. MellenCouger’s fake Springsteenisms were burning up the airwaves, so Gehman certainly knew the meaning of “radio ready” and how to get a song into that shape. But think about it harder. This album came out in 1986. The worst year for music in the history of mankind. When the Stones were releasing Dirty Work, Dylan was crapping out Knocked Out Loaded, one of the most disgusting, horrible albums ever released by a major artist, and you could barely come by a single song on the radio with less than 800 pounds of reverb on the snare and an instantly dated synth track or two. In that context, “Small Town” sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? And Pageant sounds really, really freaking good.

Gehman must’ve gotten picked on a lot in middle school, but I think he and REM were pretty well matched at this point in their careers. Someone had to get these arsty fuckers out of their shells eventually… so he endows Berry’s drumming with a crisp insistency that is absolutely crucial in finally making the band sound convincingly riled up when they play rock songs. Even more so than the enhancements made by Buck, who finally discovers the existence of distortion and finds himself a meatier, fuller tone. All this, in a mix that is tough, sharp, brittle, which keeps the proceedings hard-hitting and in clear focus, even when the band is playing slow or mid-tempo – the complete opposite of the muddy languidness of Fables. The result is a bunch of tunes that get my toe-a-tapping (probably not really, unless, possibly, I’m sitting upright in a chair), my fist-a-pumping (probably not, unless I’m drunk and/or attending an REM concert where they are playing songs from Lifes Rich Pageant), my booty-a-jiggling (definitely not) and my male sexual organ growing in length and girth out of pure musical pleasure (yes, actually). Like the opener “Begin The Begin!” That’s a fantastic rock song! So is the following “These Days”! Where did this incredible explosion of hard driving rock power come from?!

And… what’s this? Does this band have a lead singer now? Yup, Stipey has finally discovered that his jaw is capable of lateral motion, and also decided to start writing lyrics that make some sort of linear sense. Is the result a new unstoppable orgy of sound? Erm, well… no. Michael isn’t totally out of his shell yet, so he intermittently continues with his obscurisms like “Example is the checker to the key” and all of the dreary two-chord, all-acoustic folk dirge “Swan Swan H,” where Stipe’s new twangy delivery reaches gratingly epidemic proportions. But now that you can actually hear the words, the mystery is gone and they just sound kind of, um… illiterate. The lyrics that do make sense are obvious products of the Reagan era, as REM begin their ascent to becoming the epitome of limousine liberalism. And it turns out Michael just isn’t that effective of a political agitator – too clunky and unclear in his message to give me and the rest of the vast left-wing conspiracy much of an idea of what kind of action I’m supposed to be taking to combat whatever vague injustice he’s trying to convey something about.

But the melodies are as great as ever, and I can tell he’s getting worked up about something. That’s probably because the band now sounds full and tough behind him and generates enough steam to make even a line like “We are young despite the years, we are concerned/we are hope despite the times” not sound too stupid in context (note: “These Days” also contains my favorite line on the album. Stipe: “We have many things in common, name three;” Mills, in response: “Three! Three! Three!” Haha. I find that amusing even though I am no longer 6 years old. Not to mention the “Buffalo Bill” pun on the cover. Such jokesters, these guys).

But hey, don’t think REM have suddenly turned into some headbanger jock band with giant steroid muscles and stupid buzz cuts or anything. After the first two songs, they’re mostly back to the pretty mid-tempo jangle thing. Behold: “Cuyahoga” and “Fall On Me,” which both sport “environmental awareness” lyrics and gorgeous, classic Stipe cumshot choruses. If these songs were on Fables, he would’ve just lazily moaned his way through those high notes without actually hitting them satisfactorily, but here he fucking goes for them and is right on. Mills shines as well – smooth bassline on “Cuyahoga” and yet more dominating lead-backup vocals on “Fall On Me.” I can’t think of a more perfect meshing of Stipe and Mills’ voices than the chorus of “Fall On Me,” which was their most popular single on the charts and on MTV to that point… no wonder. Just about a perfect little REM song.

There are two, intimately related problems with this album. First, only about half of the songs were new, leaving the band the task of rejiggering outtakes from previous sessions to fill up the running time. They even go as far back as their pre-Chronic Town days in a couple of instances (“Just A Touch,” “What If We Give It Away?”). The old songs are performed with plenty of gusto, definitely, but from a songwriting standpoint they don’t measure up to the new ones. Second, like most REM albums, the album is frontloaded to hell, so the best four songs are tracks 1-4 and side 2 is mostly made up of leftovers. Fortunately, this latter issue is partially redeemed by the fact that the last song is the Mike Mills-sung cover “Superman,” the first REM song I ever heard due to its appearance in a commercial for a now-forgotten product that aired when I was but a wee lad (or maybe it was a cover of a cover, I don’t know. But I definitely remember hearing this song on TV repeatedly as a young child, despite not having much opportunity to since the only things I watched on TV when I was 6 were Spider-Man and Yankees games) It’s a rescue operation of a lost-60’s classic… if The Clique had put this one out in ’65 instead of ’69, it’d have been just as big as “Glad All Over” or something, but it worked out just fine as a mid-80’s retro thing, I think. Harmonies! Hooks galore! Lyrics that are basically the same as “I Can See For Miles!” It’s got it all!

Pageant, as a distinct midpoint between the nearly unassailable but elusively insular early records and later commercial records, is a good jumping off point for REM’s catalog as a whole, and the guitar tone and strong production work tend to gloss over the too-high concentration of filler. So hell, buy it. If you still do that kind of thing with music.

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