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.