[14 July 2011]
Sound Affects Editor
As part of its clockwork 25th anniversary repressing schedule for R.E.M.’s discography, Capitol now trots out the band’s fourth LP, Lifes Rich Pageant, for the remastered/deluxe treatment. Recorded in Indiana with producer Don Gehman and released in 1986, the album is unfortunately often downplayed in retrospective discussions of landmark recordings from the ‘80s. That’s a situation that requires rectification. Although Murmur (1983) is the critically-revered debut often pegged as the proper starting point for the alternative rock genre, and Document (1987) was the Georgia four-piece’s commercial breakthrough, there’s a reasonable case to be made that Pageant is the group’s finest record from that decade.
Ditching the much-ballyhooed “mystique” of the earliest albums in favor of a cleaner, more direct full-band sound, Lifes Rich Pageant (singer Michael Stipe had an aversion to apostrophes in his titles back then) proved that R.E.M. didn’t need to hide in the sonic shadows to make a compelling record. The quartet’s old approach to recording had reached the end of its artistic viability on the group’s previous studio release, Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), where the underwhelming mix turned many already-hard-to-distinguish songs into a thick mire. In contrast to the soul-sapped ambiance and creative exhaustion that plagued Fables, Lifes Rich Pageant is a clear, vibrant concoction that brims with life and purpose. Additionally, unlike the Fables remaster, this new edition of Pageant doesn’t feel the least bit dated.
Don Gehman should’ve gotten a medal for his efforts here, and it’s a shame he didn’t get the chance to helm another album (indeed, Gehman was offered production duties on follow-up LP Document, but turned them down due to schedule conflicts, a decision he has since expressed regret over). At the time, drafting in the fella who manned the board for mass-appealing heartland rocker John Mellencamp seemed anathema to the R.E.M. spirit. Understated, oblique and modest, the group was representative of an entire culture of musicians and listeners who rejected the mainstream pop music world’s bloated excess. However, Gehman’s big punchy production was the kick R.E.M. needed to its collective behind, resulting in the best-sounding record the band had yielded up to that point. Moving at a faster-than-usual clip for much of Pageant, R.E.M. exudes a new-found confidence as it stridently carries the standard for American alternative rock the tiniest bit closer to the mainstream without coming off as hackneyed or compromised, something which could have so easily happened in lesser hands during the reverb-happy “slick rock” ‘80s.
Michael Stipe’s formerly-inscrutable vocals were particularly affected by the change in production aesthetic. Finding himself thrust to the forefront without a murky mix to hide in anymore and challenged by Gehman to clarify what exactly he was saying with his eccentric mutterings, here a shell-shocked Stipe undergoes a metamorphosis from reluctant, under-enunciating front man to socially-conscious star-in-waiting. Indeed, Stipe determined that he had important things he wanted to get across to listeners after all, as his perception of the perilous state (both environmental and political) of contemporary America and the prospect of renewal permeate his words. Not content to simply describe “what’s going on”, the singer memorably proposes “Let’s put our heads together / And start a new country up” in the polluted-waters-lament “Cuyahoga”, and uses introductory anthem “Begin the Begin” to outline his manifesto of personal responsibility in uniquely Stipeian language (“A philanderer’s tie / A murderer’s shoe / Example, the finest example is you”).
Noticeably front-loaded, the first half of Lifes Rich Pageant is arguably the strongest single side of vinyl/cassette R.E.M. ever laid down. The group instantly shocks listeners into attentiveness with the uncharacteristic “Begin the Begin”, a dirge-like yet captivating opener that wouldn’t sound out of place alongside cuts by harder-rocking alterna-progeny Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Tying in with Stipe’s call to shake off the generational complacency, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry lay down a downright heavy rhythmic bedrock as guitar antihero Peter Buck forgoes plucking out jangly melodies on his Rickenbacker to instead (shock, horror!) strum distorted barre chords. Elsewhere, uptempo jangle pop numbers “These Days” and “Hyena” move fast, while the astonishing “Cuyahoga” ebbs and flows like the tide, building up anticipation until finally offering the release of a truly rousing chorus halfway through. The record’s second half is somewhat haphazard in comparison, but that shouldn’t discount any material there. “The Flowers of Guatemala” is simply gorgeous, the cheerful cover of ’60s garage rock group the Clique’s “Superman” (featuring Mills on lead vocals for the first time) is feel-good, hook-filled fun, and the Appalachian folk pastiche “Swan Swan H” is an unlikely triumph, given it’s the most traditionalist piece of rustic Southern gothic the group had crafted at a time when it was becoming more and more concerned with the here and now of the wider world.
There are fantastic tunes all around on Lifes Rich Pageant, but there’s one that surpasses them all. One shortcoming R.E.M. had faced previously was that in spite of being able to create exemplary overarching works in LP and EP forms, the band had yet to write an individual song that undisputedly ranked among rock’s all-time greatest compositions—that is, until “Fall on Me”. The album’s lead single (as if there was any doubt that it would be), “Fall on Me” is a smidge-under-three-minutes of sheer pop perfection, where Stipe’s keening voice glides upward throughout the verses and pre-choruses, finally entwining with Mills’ equally-compelling backing harmonies for a positively transcendent chorus. All these years later, it’s still one of the most breathtaking tracks R.E.M. ever laid down, and a high-water mark for ‘80s alt-rock in general.
Like all the previous 25th anniversary special editions, Lifes Rich Pageant comes with a second disc, this time loaded with demo recordings laid down back home in Athens, Georgia, in March 1986. Although I’m sure the inclusion of these 19 tracks is thrilling to someone out there, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting excited about them for any reason other than completeness. The demos aren’t the most compelling works-in-progress, for they were merely a method to allow the foursome to get a handle on its new wares. Aside from some developmental curiosities—Stipe trying out alternate melodies on some cuts, instrumental versions of “Flowers of Guatemala” and “King of Birds” (here named “March Song”, it would later show up on Document)—the demos disc mainly illustrates how necessary Gehman’s production was to fostering the dynamics of the fully-realized versions on the final LP. More enticing are the packaging and bonus goodies, which entail a full-size poster, a set of four black-and-white postcards featuring each band member looking their moodiest, and a thick lift-top to tuck it all away in.
Commemorative repackage or not, Lifes Rich Pageant is a must-listen rock record that is too often overshadowed by more chatted-about releases. History will always deem Murmur and Document to be the I.R.S. Records-era R.E.M. albums of note, and certainly not without reason. Yet Lifes Rich Pageant should not be glossed over, for it is a stunner, a consistently impressive work that deserves its rightful place not only in any tally of the best R.E.M. LPs, but in any evaluation of the preeminent guitar-based recordings of the ‘80s. Miles Standish-proud, congratulate Stipe, Buck, Mills and Berry.