Life’s Rich Pageant, which first came out in 1986, was the fourth in a series of five albums released consecutively. With this kind of prolific output it is no surprise that some songs begin to sound similar. However, with their mysterious and provocative lyrics this is no bad thing, as each song brings a new challenge or type of enjoyment. This gradual yet constant evolution in style is what sets R.E.M. apart to this day from the majority of other bands, and on Life’s Rich Pageant the band gives us a snippet of what their life was like as they gradually made the change from college rockers to a respected and successful alternative rock band.
The song that is most important in continuing this progression is the lead single “Fall On Me.” With its intricate guitar opening it provides a pensive mood for a song about oppression of ideas, but also contains a sing-a-long chorus which new listeners can enjoy. The album also has a much more upbeat feel than previous releases, as evidenced by the rowdy “Just A Touch” and the chirpy, piano-led “Hyena.” Despite this, references to previous albums remain–the riff to “These Days” is clearly in the jangly pop style which dominated the first two albums, while the completely acoustic ballad “Swan Swan H” would not be out of place on the band’s previous album with its bucolic imagery of the American South.
However this “day in the life” of R.E.M. which the album provides is not solely concerned with past experiences and feelings. With one listen it is obvious Stipe’s mumbled delivery from previous albums has completely disappeared, and for good reason; his lyrics had become more poignant and focused. “Begin the Begin” addresses the revolutions America has undergone, but it could also be a reference to the band beginning a new chapter while sitting on the brink of stardom. Songs like “Cuyahoga” and “Flowers of Guatemala” clearly have man’s attitude towards the environment at heart.
Life’s Rich Pageant is a different album to place. While it contains classic R.E.M. traits like Stipe and Mike Mills’ beautiful vocal harmonies found on “Fall On Me,” there is also the unfamiliar territory found in the anthemic chorus of “What If We Gave It Away” and the memorable album closer “Superman.” The latter song’s catchy pop rock chorus great differs from the folky sound of the preceding track “Swan Swan H” and most of the band’s previous work.
Despite these variations in song style, Life’s Rich Pageant also houses a song which gives the best insight into the methods of the band. Despite beginning in classic jangly R.E.M. style, “I Believe” shows the band to be one which never stops moving and always craves to do something different, as Stipe sings “and change is what I believe in” and “perfect is a fault, and fault lines change.”
“I Believe” shows why it is OK for some of R.E.M.’s work to sound similar, as it is clear that the band are always trying to change and evolve their style lyrically, instrumentally and thematically. This was part of their “rich pageant” as a college band beginning to draw a larger crowd and more attention. As an album, Life’s Rich Pageant confirms the quality of what has gone before, as well as showing why the band continue to be important today. Their ceaselessly inventive nature and desire to evolve musically is an attitude to be admired, and it is this attitude which would give them their greatest commercial success in future years.