Before Document, before Out of Time, before Automatic for the People—in other words, before R.E.M. began playing arenas—there was Life's Rich Pageant.
Coming off Fables of the Reconstruction, the group decided to try a bigger, harder-driving sound. To create that effect, they chose producer Don Gehman, who had previously worked with John Cougar Mellencamp. What resulted was a mix that placed drummer Bill Berry and singer Michael Stipe squarely in front; they had been buried sonically in previous albums. Upon Life's Rich Pageant's release in 1986, R.E.M. drew a larger fan base, beyond the cult status of college radio. It moved the group toward a more polished sound, and enabled Stipe to compose lyrics commenting on the state of the environment and politics.
Amazingly, Stipe has frequently expressed ambivalence about the album. In a 2006 interview with The Sun, he stated that R.E.M. worked with Gehman because "he was renowned for his drum sound and that was something we were interested in, so we basically got a lot louder drums. It was a very confident record for us at the time." However, he claimed that Life's Rich Pageant lowered his confidence as an artist. "His production style was really to question me, my motives and my lyrics. It stole what confidence I had away. I don’t blame him for that, it was just a clash of personalities and his interpretation of where I needed to go though it was going in a direction that was probably a little bit earlier than I needed to go in."
For me, Life's Rich Pageant holds great meaning. My cousin taped the album for me when I was still in high school back in the mid-'80s. "This is real alternative music," he said, using the term that had recently entered the vernacular. I felt pretty cool for listening to something so different and seemingly rebellious. But when I heard the songs, I realized they weren't strange at all—just hard-driving rock with some powerful, ultimately optimistic lyrics.
With piercing electric guitar and Stipe singing "Let's begin again," the album kicks off on a defiant note with "Begin the Begin." This aggression continues with "These Days," one of my favorite tracks. The four musicians totally meld together on the song—Peter Buck's guitar soars as Berry's furious drumming propels the track. Stipe's shows his voice's versatility and ability to communicate emotion. "We are young despite the years/We are concern, we are hope/Despite the times," he sings, countering some of the pessimism pervading the '80s. "All of a sudden, these days/Happy throngs, take this joy wherever, wherever," he continues, encouraging listeners to enact change from this newfound optimism. Clearly, these lyrics resonate today as much as they ever did.