If history is a river, than the lives we lead are cracks in the sandstone foundation. Eddies and raindrops wear down the rock until great canyons form. Millions of years pass in a heartbeat, the flickering shudder of a broken film projector.
R.E.M.‘s early albums hang in an atmosphere of perpetual timelessness. In this manner they represented a natural extension of the traditional Southern sound: rustic and gnarled. But in almost every other way they couldn’t have been more dissimilar to groups like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. They certainly hailed from the heart of the Deep South, in Athens, Georgia, but their sensibility was strangely removed from their surroundings.
Although R.E.M. were firmly entrenched in the post-punk and pre-alternative music scene of the mid-80s, their truest antecedents were not the Velvet Underground or Joy Division, but the Band. Like R.E.M., the Band’s early music—in particular the groundbreaking one-two punch of Music From Big Pink and their self-titled second “brown” album—conjured images of a poignant, forgotten rusticity. Unlike the Band, however, R.E.M. were actually southern, instead of merely being four-fifths Canadian with a token southerner (Levon Helm, hailing from Arkansas). Both groups, although they would use strikingly different musical vocabularies to achieve their goals, came to grips with their ambivalence towards a simultaneously rich and embarrassing historical legacy in similarly ornate and Faulknerian fashions.
At the conclusion of Absalom, Absalom!, Williams Faulkner presents the question beating at the heart of his work, as well as at the heart of the Band and at the heart of Life’s Rich Pageant: “Why do you hate the South?”, to which Quentin Compson replies “I don’t hate it! I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”
R.E.M. were basically unstoppable from the release of 1982’s Chronic Town EP, through roughly the release of 1992’s Automatic For the People. There are many who insist that the band never improved on the sound of their first three or four albums. Although I’ve got enough cred to point out that I got Murmur soon after seeing the band on Late Night with David Letterman, I can’t in good conscious dismiss the band’s later output. The fact is, the band who recorded “Harborcoat” couldn’t have been more different from the band that recorded “Nightswimming”, even though they were obviously the exact same people. You can’t ask me to pick between the two; it’s just not a fair question.
Incidentally, this attitude makes it a lot easier to swallow the group’s recent, drummer-less incarnation. I know some die-hards who absolutely refuse to consider R.E.M. without Bill Berry on drums. I understand their frustration. But Up, despite it’s patchiness, is just too beautiful a record to dismiss, and Reveal is simply an amazingly vital album that continues to impress three years after its release. You can’t dismiss R.E.M. circa 2004 anymore than you could R.E.M. circa 1994 or even 1984 (yes, I am sure there are some at the time who thought they “totally sold out” with Reckoning). Just because he doesn’t mumble the words anymore doesn’t mean they lost the ability to write a compelling melody.
That said, as much as I love their later material, their earlier albums are a part of me in a way that few cultural artifacts could ever be. And among their earlier albums, Life’s Rich Pageant stands out in my mind. Sure, it was less claustrophobic than Fables of the Reconstruction (which is, on examination, one of the most doggedly depressing albums ever recorded by a mainstream rock band), and much less recondite than the joyfully abstract Reckoning. The album’s more aggressively confident sound could certainly have been seen as a betrayal of the antiquarian ethos that made their first recordings so special. But they were still very much entrenched in the mud and muck of the past, steeped in the awkward anachronisms that gave them so much of their early appeal. This fact would become obvious with the release of their fifth, and final I.R.S. album, Document. Of all their early albums, Document is the only one that has aged poorly, and I believe that this is a function of it’s jarringly “contemporary” (circa-1987) sound. Although Document is fondly remembered by most, it was a definite disappointment after Life’s Rich Pageant, and could ultimately be best seen as a warm-up for their first Warner Brothers record, the classic Green.
Life’s Rich Pageant is a political album, but that shouldn’t frighten you. Most of the political content is rather broad: if you believe that the Reagan ‘80s were morally and ethically bankrupt, then you should be on the same ground as R.E.M. While there has been a lot of bad music written about politics, you don’t need to fear any tuneless Jeremiads. You can’t successfully write about politics or social issues unless you have the musical chops to keep things interesting, and Life’s Rich Pageant is nothing if not interesting.
I have never had anything more than a lukewarm regard for U2, and listening to early R.E.M. in comparison to something like The Joshua Tree brings this preference into perfect focus. Bono was never the subtlest lyricist, and although you can’t fault U2 in terms of their chops, their ham-fisted, clichè-ridden populist anthems have never done anything for me. Its no secret that most rock & roll lyrics are bad poetry made tolerable by good music, and most of Bono’s lyrics, while good for getting the stadium-capacity crowds on their feet, are very poor poetry.
(I’m not about to say that Michael Stipe hasn’t written a few poor lyrics in his time—but by the time he reached his “transparently populist” phase in the early 90s, he had rather earned the right to be obvious, after a decade of oblique opacity. And even given that, the diaphanous “Everybody Hurts” was still balanced by the oblique “Drive”.)
“Begin the Begin” is rightly hailed as one of R.E.M. ‘s most rocking numbers, and serves as a perfect thesis statement for the album’s heartier sound. There’s a ferocity here that was missing from the group’s early material. The song also opens up Life’s Rich Pageant‘s political veins, with a string of almost non-sequitur references to Miles Standish and Martin Luther. There’s a sense of conservatism beginning to devour its own tail, and the frequent animal metaphors throughout the album (tigers, hyenas and reptiles abound) evoke the concept of a world reverting to primal savagery.
“These Days” presents a hopeful corrective to the trudging, swamp-footed misanthropy of “Begin the Begin”. Stipe sings one of his most famous lines here, “we are hope despite the times”, and that hope is the baldest possible antidote to the creeping archaicism that threatens to overwhelm the album at all turns. The acidic sludge that began the album is discarded as the band achieves a preternaturally strong rapport: this is the sound of one of the world’s finest rock bands learning how to play with all cylinders firing.
The lean brutality of the first two tracks eases into the relaxed, resplendent pop of “Fall On Me” and “Cuyahoga”. These two tracks are the heart and soul of Life’s Rich Pageant, and as such represent some of the best and most poignant music R.E.M. have ever written. Tellingly, these are also two of the bands simplest compositions: introduction, verse, bridge, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, chorus, fade. The anger and passion of the first two tracks has receded into a weary sense of historical determinism. Both “Fall On Me” and “Cuyahoga” deal with the environment. They are both written from the perspective of a pre-Columbian native American, and with an unreconstructed socialist’s eye for naturalism.
These are powerful tracks, strengthened by the force of Stipe’s convictions. There’s nothing fancy here, no string orchestras or electronic flourishes or mandolins: just simple words over evocative music. The bridge of “Fall On Me” features an almost childish evocation of grief and bewilderment, wrapped in Stipe’s confident and assured tenor: “Buy the sky and sell the sky / And lift your arms up to the sky / And ask the sky and ask the sky / Don’t fall on me”. The words shift throughout the song, from “tell the sky” to “bleed the sky”. Mike Mills introduces a counterpoint during the middle-eight: “Well I could keep it above / But then it wouldn’t be sky anymore / So if I send it to you you’ve got to promise to keep it whole”. The combination of Stipe’s passion and Mills’ reserve creates an emotional balance that prevents the song from careening into a jeremiad. The plainspoken gravity with which the band conducts itself grants them a moral authority that a more histrionic group could never command.
“Cuyahoga” is slightly more strident than “Fall On Me”, and with good reason. It showcases some of Stipe’s best lyrics, and Stipe at his best is better than most lyricists could ever dream of achieving:
“This land is the land of ours / This river runs red over it / We knee-skinned it you and me / We knee-skinned that river red. / And we gathered up our friends / Bank the quarry river, swim / We knee-skinned it you and me / Underneath the river bed. / Underneath the river bed / We burned the river down.”
The repetition and metonymy create an irresistibly musical rhythm and cadence. Every line is exactly four beats, and almost every line also contains internal rhyming and repeated alliteration that keeps the phrases slipping off the tongue like rainwater. The line “We knee-skinned it you and me” begins with the rhyming “we” and “knee” and ends with “me”. The phrase works in a circuitous loop, coming back onto the subject in a loping, childlike manner, implying as it does so an innocent, childlike consciousness. Again, the alliteration keeps the words rolling off the tongue: the “river runs”, the “river red”, even the “quarry river” (put the emphasis on the last syllable in “quarry”).
Stipe utilizes one of his favorite devices hear, changing the verses and bridges slightly throughout the song to indicate a shifting moral perspective. The original line “This is where they walked / This is where they swam” evolves into “This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang”, a more expansive, more expressive and much more poetic phrase. Interestingly, the legend “Walked, Swam, Hunted, Danced, Sang” was printed at the bottom of an R.E.M. poster back around the time of the album’s release. Those five words, with their cryptic expressiveness, were for a time something of a calling card for the band.
There’s one more phrase in “Cuyahoga” that sticks in memory, and it occurs during the middle-eight:
“Rewrite the book and rule the pages / Saving face, secured in faith. Bury, burn the waste behind you.”
Every line is perfectly constructed, split into two clauses. The second clauses begin with alliteration from the first clause, except for the final line, which contains three alliterative words (“bury”, “burn” and “behind”). Furthermore, watch how the hard “a” sound (as in “page” and “face”) recurs throughout the verse four times. The whole thing has the sing-song meter of a children’s nursery rhyme, and it sticks in your head just as easily. The secret to Stipe’s lyrics is that while they seem simple, they are constructions of intense internal complexity. This attention to detail grants his lyrics a poetic weight and heft that is almost unique in the rock canon—even Dylan can rarely boast of so precise and affecting a construction.
“Cuyahoga” gives way to “Hyena”, a return to the more propulsive sounds that began the album. I’ll be honest with you: I still don’t know what this song is about after almost 20 years. It seems to be about a girl, or a woman. Is it about Jeanne Kirkpatrick or Nancy Reagan, as some have posited? I don’t know: the latter would make sense, considering their noted antipathy towards the Reagans (see Reckoning‘s “Pretty Persuasion”), as well as the album’s general themes, but on consideration the song seems to be more a general indictment of the reckless fear-mongering in which Reagan-era Republicans (not to mention conservatives of a more recent vintage) loved to indulge.
Side One, if you’re following along at home on vinyl or cassette tape, finishes with “Underneath the Bunker”, one of the weirdest tracks in R.E.M.‘s catalog. I think this is definitely a conscious decision on their part. Without the throwaway samba-infused cheerfulness of “Underneath the Bunker”, the first side of Life’s Rich Pageant would have been an unbearably earnest and suffocating affair. As it is, the band has the good sense to know when to back off and show their humorous underbellies. Tellingly, the album’s second side also ends on something of a lark, with their garage-rawk cover of The Clique’s 1969 gem “Superman”.
“The Flowers of Guatemala” is another pop gem on par with of “Fall On Me” and “Cuyahoga”. The song is supposedly about a type of mushroom, the amanita, used as a food staple by the people of Central America. But of course, Guatemala had specific political connotations back in the eighties: until a treaty was signed in 1996 the country was home to a bloody civil war, wherein the United States backed state-sponsored violence in an attempt to curb Marxist guerrillas. Of course, the American government believed that it was in our national interests to combat the movement for Socialist agrarian land reform, so over 100,000 ethnic Mayas were killed in the war, with countless other missing and spread to the four winds, particularly Mexico and Canada. Bill Clinton apologized for the government’s role in fomenting the upheavals, but his apology came over a decade after the last documented violence (in 1983).
The song is about nothing so much as a wistful sense of loss and the pungent odor of tragedy. It’s almost as if Stipe is trying to say that there is so much beauty, but it’s all for naught. The song, however, really belongs to Peter Buck. Anyone who listens to R.E.M. knows that he’s not one for indulgent guitar solos, but this track contains perhaps his single best guitar line ever. During the middle-eight he lets loose one of the most intensely mournful and concise pieces of weeping guitar I’ve ever heard. I remember reading a piece on the recording of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain album, wherein George Clinton explained the genesis of the infamously intense guitar line of that album’s title-track. He explained that he had told guitarist Eddie Hazel to play “as if he had just found out his mother was dead”. Certainly, Buck’s small line is far more condensed than Hazel’s ten-minute long opus, but it is similarly one of the most expressively sad guitar parts ever recorded. Buck earns his entry into that cliched “Guitar Hero Pantheon” simply on the basis of his performance here.
“I Believe” is a step in a lighter direction, with another aggressive performance from the band, as well as a stunt accordion section. There’s a taste of Reckoning‘s ramshackle honkey-tonk here, as well as Stipe’s trademark mordant wit. One of his tricks on these early albums, before he was comfortable with his presence as a performer or even the sound of his recorded voice, was to occasionally lower his tenor into a greasy baritone. It made him sound about twenty years older than he actually was at the time, and the eventual abandonment of these tricks was one of the signs that R.E.M. had moved past their first phase and into a more robust second stage. In many ways Life’s Rich Pageant was a transitional album, and “I Believe” was very much a symbol of this transition.
“What If We Give It Away?” is probably the album’s least impressive song, as it sounds like a lesser attempt at the kind of anthemic pop they perfected on “Fall on Me”. “Just a Touch” is the beginning of the album’s final fourth, and in accordance with the laws of Man and God, the final act of every early R.E.M. album is just kinda odd. Just as Fables ended with the odd combination of “Good Advice” and “Wendell Gee”, Life’s Rich Pageant ends by flipping everything on its head. “Just A Touch” is one of the most frantic rockers in R.E.M.‘s catalog, with a feverish punk energy that makes this one of Stipe’s least coherent vocal performances of all time. The group had held on to their thematic and musical coherence for just about nine tracks, and “Just A Touch” is the sound of them running off the rails. It’s got a twinge of panic around the edges that is as genuinely scary as anything else on the album.
Which brings us, of course, to the immortal “Swan Swan H”. I don’t know why they decided to write a song about Civil War-era pirates and put it on an album filled with heady political and historical musings. In an odd way, it foreshadows some of their later material, such as the nearly all acoustic Out of Time and the elegiac Automatic For the People. In an odd way, it also fits, although I’m not going to sit here and tell you how, because if I said I knew I’d be a liar. It is definitely a gripping and honestly engaging track, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t still something of a head-scratcher after all these years. Who but R.E.M. could sell a line like: “Hey captain don’t you want to buy / Some bone chains and toothpicks?”
The album’s final track is their aforementioned cover of The Clique’s “Superman”. It’s fittingly fun and ragged, a jangly garage-rawk send-off. (Incidentally, in case you’ve ever wondered what the strange talking at the beginning of the track was, I recently came across the fact that it’s apparently a bit from an old Godzilla movie, in Japanese, with a newscaster saying: “This is a special news report. Godzilla has been sighted in Tokyo Bay. The attack on it by the self-defense force has been useless. He is heading towards the city. Aaaaggghh!” Now you know.)
I would be hard pressed to say that Life’s Rich Pageant was the best R.E.M. album, simply by virtue of the fact that nearly every album they have ever recorded has been superb. I couldn’t possibly put this one above Reckoning or Green or Fables or Automatic For the People—but by that same token I can’t think of another album of theirs that deserves to be ranked one inch above Life’s Rich Pageant. Everyone remembers Murmur for being a fantastic debut, and although I maintain that it hasn’t aged well, Document is fondly remembered for being the album that first broke R.E.M. in the pop consciousness. For some odd reason, their fourth album has been nearly forgotten, and for the life of me I can’t possibly imagine why. Certainly, it is not as perfectly constructed as Automatic, the last part is something of a mess. But not everything has to be some kind of perfectly symmetrical OK Computer-esque song cycle with elegantly matching thematic devices. Sometimes rock and roll is big and bold and hoary and shambling, and that’s OK too.
Life’s Rich Pageant deserves to be ranked among the absolute best rock and roll albums ever recorded. It’s a simply phenomenal mixture of energy, craft, poetry and humor, welded to the cast-iron chassis of a young band just recently come into their prime. It’s the type of album that stays with you, haunting your life from the moment you hear it until the moment you die. It means something. It strikes a chord deep inside me that few pieces of music have ever struck. It’s the sound of history, splayed out on the examination table like a dead fish, flopping and panting for air in the harsh glare of the klieg lights. It’s the sound of humanity, adamant and joyous and mournful and full of shame. It’s the sound of the past coming into frightful collision with the future, and it’s the fateful testament of every survivor to crawl out of the terrible wreckage.
// Notes from the Road
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