Great Fucking Albums #28: Lifes Rich Pageant

Let’s get one thing straight right now: I know you expect an apostrophe in the “Lifes” on Lifes Rich Pageant but R.E.M. didn’t put one there so I’m not going to either. Let’s just move on the best we can, okay?

The year was 1986. Ronald Reagan was halfway through his second term tripling our national debt in two expensive, pointless, and morally ambiguous wars (the Drug War and the Cold War, for those of you keeping score at home) while simultaneously ignoring AIDS (no wonder the current crop of Republicans idolizes this guy). R.E.M. was coming off the road to record the follow-up to Fables of the Reconstruction, an album that the band seems to view as a dark effort (I regard it as a good album, though not as clearly awesome as Lifes Rich Pageant). For their fourth full-length, R.E.M. turned to producer Don Gehman who had earned his reputation producing… um… John Mellancamp albums. Stay with me here.

Gehman, in what would be his only time working with R.E.M., produced their finest album, Lifes Rich Pageant, a pop/rock masterwork infused with anger (“silence is security/ silence means approval,” Michael Stipe sings on “Begin the Begin”), melancholy (“Fall On Me”), and not a little bit of humor (album closer “Superman,” which is a cover of a song by the Clique). Vocally, it was an early step toward intelligibility for Michael Stipe (but it’s not like you can’t figure out what he’s saying on Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction; on Murmur, yeah, your guess is as good as mine) and instrumentally, it saw R.E.M. move toward a bigger rock sound while still holding fast to their roots as a group that began in Athens, Georgia, as basically a Velvet Underground cover band.

Although R.E.M.’s first big hit, “The One I Love,” was still a year away (on Document.  How is that possible? Their first four albums are littered with songs that are far, far better than “The One I Love.” Murmur had “Catapult” and “Perfect Circle.” Reckoning had “Pretty Persuasion” and “Second Guessing.” Fables of the Reconstruction had “Driver 8,” “Can’t Get There from Here” and “Wendell Gee.” And Lifes Rich Pageant bested them all), Lifes Rich Pageant is – to me – their first true pop record, “Underneath the Bunker” notwithstanding.

First of all, there’s not a wasted moment here. From “Begin the Begin” to “Superman,” R.E.M. are on task in a way that they probably ought to revisit. In my mind – and you already know how I think about singles – any one of the twelve tracks on this Great Fucking Album could be a hit (okay, except maybe the aforementioned “Underneath the Bunker,” which I’d totally play if I had a radio station). If time travel wasn’t impossible, I’d go back to 1986 and make all the radios play “Fall On Me” and “The Flowers of Guatemala,” the latter of which has to be among the most underrated R.E.M. songs ever recorded. It is so underrated, in fact, that even I was too retarded to include it as part of R.E.M.’s Finest Hour.

Lyrically, Lifes Rich Pageant, like a lot of R.E.M.s ’80s output, is preoccupied with very worthy task of disliking the Reagan Administration. As Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry (the most underrated drummer in rock history) saw their country take a hard right turn that brought with it an almost seething contempt for the environment (not to mention poor people and the sovereign rights of various Central and South American nations), their music couldn’t help but address that shift. What makes Lifes Rich Pageant timeless, though, is Stipe’s opacity. “Cuyahoga” is a bitter song about a river that was so polluted that it actually caught on fire once, but its specificity ends with the geography. The line “take a picture here/ take a souvenir” could be about any place that we’re currently fucking to death by valuing money over the land we live on. Songs like “Begin the Begin” and “I Believe” are calls to arms for the 1980s that just happen to resonate right to the present day, perhaps because so little has changed (to address the elephant and/or donkey in the room here: yes, I’m probably what you’d call a “liberal” and yes, I voted for Barack Obama. But I don’t worship him – or anyone, except maybe Joe Strummer* – and sadly, I don’t believe that any president will ever dismantle our horrifying military-industrial complex, nor will any of them actually undertake any policy that might subvert our national religion – money –  even if it means that we get to live on a habitable planet). Even if you aren’t trying to suss out the political undertones of Lifes Rich Pageant (Parke Puterbaugh, who wrote the liner notes for the 25th Anniversary Edition of the album, asserts that “Fall On Me” is about “lamenting acid rain or resisting political oppression” but I’ve always understood it as a love song. The genius of this album is that Puterbaugh and I can both be correct), you can still wallow in the melodies, which are some of the strongest R.E.M. has ever created. Enjoy the tour de force performance of Mike Mills, the world’s greatest background vocalist, as he adds his reedy tenor to songs like “Hyena” and “Fall On Me.” Mills even takes the lead on “Superman” and proves himself quite adept at sixties pop.

As I parenthetically mentioned a second ago (you can skip everything in parentheses in any given Bollocks! review and you’ll get the gist, but I’d like to think you’ll also miss out on a lot of what makes this blog what it is [whatever that is]), Lifes Rich Pageant has lovingly received a 25th birthday re-release that you can scoop up for between twenty and twenty-five bucks. Is it for hardcore fans only? Sure; every release like this is. But if you love Lifes Rich Pageant as much as I do, the anniversary reissue is well worth your time. It comes with a dazzling 19-track bonus disc of so-called “Athens Demos” recorded during the album sessions, including an early version of the proto-“It’s the End of the World As We Know It” song “Bad Day” (written during Reagan, revised, re-recorded, and released under George W. Bush. In the liner notes to The Best of R.E.M., Peter Buck notes that nothing had changed between the original writing of the song and its eventual release) and a few other unreleased treasures. It also includes four postcards and a giant poster (soon to be framed and hung in the office of my new Portland area apartment!) of R.E.M. in all their 1980s glory. The Athens Demos are a great insight into how these songs developed on their way to becoming my favorite R.E.M. record, but I don’t see casual R.E.M. listeners sitting still for the whole disc.

You can obviously still find the regular edition of Lifes Rich Pageant on disc (my old copy is free to the first taker, but I should warn you that it was purchased at a CD Trader when I was in high school and it’s pretty warn out) and you would do well to check it out (the whole thing is also available on Spotify) if you like pop, rock, pop/rock, or unsurpassed awesomeness.

* “Worship” is the wrong word to apply to Mr. Strummer. It’s more like I follow his teachings, the way Buddhists are supposed to follow the teachings of Buddha. My spiritual/moral code derives from following the teachings of Joe Strummer, the Dalai Lama, and Kurt Vonnegut. It’s served me well so far, which is exactly why I’m not gonna build a church around it.

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R.E.M.’s First Great Album of the Twenty-First Century

R.E.M. has released three studio albums so far in the twenty-first century. Collapse Into Now, out tomorrow, will be number four. Before we get to that, though, you should know that I’ve been a huge R.E.M. fan since I was about 18 years old. So when I tell you that their efforts since 2000 have been less than consistently satisfying, I hope you’ll understand what I mean. I mean that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, Collapse Into Now doesn’t have to do a whole lot to be R.E.M.’s best album of the last eleven years. It’s their fifteenth record; many of their peers when they started over thirty years ago haven’t made it this far and the ones that have are mostly making worse music (when was the last time you put on U2’s No Line On the Horizon? Be honest).

To some extent, I feel like the band cheated on 2008’s Accelerate, indulging in precious few of the textural quirks that make some of their earlier work so memorable (“Houston” and “Sing for the Submarine” notwithstanding). The album was full of straight-up rockers and it worked pretty well in my estimation. I think it was a sort of refocusing that R.E.M. desperately needed in order to shake off the malaise of Around the Sun.

But if I’m gonna imply that Accelerate was a sort of calisthenic warm-up, aren’t I suggesting that Collapse Into Now should somehow be bigger and better than its predecessor? That’s exactly what I’m suggesting and the album delivers. I said Collapse Into Now didn’t have to do much to be the best R.E.M. record since 2000; that it may well be the band’s first great album of the century is a welcome surprise. The sonic scope is considerably wider here than it was on Accelerate: there are more blips, bleeps, string arrangements, vocal effects, and, yeah, Peter Buck plays the fucking mandolin on a song or two (I read an advanced review of this album on Spin‘s website that belabored this point by titling their review “Finding Their Religion.” I can’t stand shit like that – Spin wants you to think the new R.E.M. album sounds like old R.E.M. radio hits, conveniently forgetting that Buck played the mandolin way before “Losing My Religion” [the song is not about religion either, goddammit]. He played it on the sublime “You Are the Everything” from Green). Mike Mills, the best background vocalist in rock, is all over Collapse Into Now and Michael Stipe finally bows to the inevitable and has Patti Smith make an appearance as well (the album’s title was apparently her idea) on a couple of tracks, including the indulgent (in a good way) album closer “Blue.”

Lyrically, Stipe isn’t afraid to mine R.E.M.’s past – “Oh My Heart”, in addition to having one of the most musically gorgeous refrains of any recent R.E.M. song, is a sequel to Accelerate‘s “Houston” (both songs deal with Hurricane Katrina). On “Houston”, “if the storm doesn’t kill me/ the government will” and on “Oh My Heart”, “the storm didn’t kill me/ and the government changed.” The aforementioned “Blue” stylistically reminds me of “E-Bow the Letter”, a song I enjoy more than probably most other R.E.M. fans and it ends with Stipe saying, “20th Century/ collapse into now”, a clear nod to New Adventures in Hi-Fi’s excellent closer “Electrolite.” This sort of self-reference is tough to pull off with panache, but it’s pretty well-executed on Collapse Into Now.

Stipe also seems preoccupied with age (his age specifically) on this album, but not – I’m happy to report – in a pathetic way. On “All the Best,” he’s ready to “show the kids how to do it” and “Every Day is Yours to Win”, trite title notwithstanding, is the sort of song I think Mark Everett has been trying to write for a while now. Rather than looking to the past and feeling like he’s said everything he’s got to say, it would appear that Mr. Stipe can reflect on his experience and look ahead with some hunger left to drive him. On the silly-but-catchy (I would argue that some of R.E.M’s finest songs, going all the way back to Chronic Town, are silly-but-catchy) “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter,” he admits, “I have got a lot/ a lot to learn” and he’s “thrilled to be alive” on “Blue.” So rather than the sourpuss seriousness of Around the Sun or the wicked-prankster antagonism of Accelerate, Collapse Into Now finds Stipe in a place of earned comfort and optimism.

Words like “fresh” and “rejuvenated” are bound to pop up in reviews of this album (they did for Accelerate too), and it’s not hard to see why. Collapse Into Now, in a lot of ways, sounds more spirited than anything the band’s done since the vastly underrated Monster (Monster, along with New Adventures in Hi-Fi, is unfairly maligned by the internet indie kids but it contains one of R.E.M.’s all-time most beautiful songs, “Strange Currencies”). The word I think I’ll use is “assured” – R.E.M., once again, at last, sounds like they’re confident in who they are and what they’re doing.

The one thing Collapse Into Now has in common with Around the Sun is that it’s positively stuffed with musical ideas. The difference between the two is that I think Around the Sun was stuffed because of a sort of lack of decision making where Collapse Into Now feels focused yet still loose. Michael Stipe has two underrated collaborators in Peter Buck and Mike Mills, both of whom know how to structure songs with a sense of economy (if you want to know how much you should admire Mike Mills, you should consider two things: first, as I’ve said, he’s a phenomenal backing vocalist. Second, he wrote the piano part for “Nightswimming”). While some of the advanced reviews I’ve read of Collapse Into Now come dangerously close to using the phrase “return to form” (Masslive.com calls it a “comeback” which is why I’m not linking to them. Color me surly if you want), I think that’s a lazy way to describe it. What’s been frustrating about other recent R.E.M. albums isn’t that they’ve forgotten how to make awesome music (“Leaving New York”, which opens Around the Sun and manages to be its best song, is a pretty classic R.E.M. ballad), it’s that they’ve been incredibly inconsistent in their execution. What Collapse Into Now really is then, is a reminder that at their best, R.E.M. is almost unrivaled as a pop/rock band.