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.
Two of Life's Rich Pageant's most well-known tracks are "Fall on Me" and "Superman," which strike opposing meanings. "Fall on Me," the band's statement against acid rain, has such a mournful quality, perhaps best expressed by Mike Mills's lilting voice: ""Well I could keep it above/But then it wouldn't be sky anymore/So if I send it to you you've got to promise to keep it whole." This track demonstrates the unique chemistry Mills and Stipe possess; their voices intermingle beautifully. On the other hand, "Superman" represents classic rock-pop. A cover of an obscure garage rock song by The Clique, the song features Mills on lead. He flatly sings the chorus "I am I am I am Superman/And I know what's happening/…And I can do anything," lending a sarcastic edge to the lyrics. The rest of the words suggest typical '60s pop lyrics: You don't really love that guy you make it with now do you/…If you go a million miles away I'll track you down girl/Trust me when I say I know the pathway to your heart." With these lyrics and Mills's performance,"Superman" functions as a bridge between the classic and postmodern.
Many songs on Life's Rich Pageant span various genres. "I Believe" starts with bluegrass banjo, only to segue into jangling guitars right out of a Byrds track (incidentally, other tracks like "What If We Give It Away?" demonstrates the Byrds's influence). Like "Begin the Begin" and "These Days," the lyrics reflect hope: "Change is what I believe in," Stipe proclaims. While some of the words represent Stipe's tendency toward the abstract, they also preach responsibility: "Trust in your calling, make sure your calling's true/Think of others, the others think of you," he sings. The quirky "Under the Bunker" has a Spanish feel, with Stipe singing the words into a megaphone. Another of my favorite songs, "Swan Swan H," sounds like a waltz—according to AllMusic, it reflects the tone of a Civil War ballad. The words are strangely, darkly beautiful.
Other standout tracks include "Hyena," featuring Mills and Stipe's exquisite harmonies and Berry's steady beat. "Just A Touch" has a punk edge, driven by speed drumming, Buck's guitar screams alongside Mills's keyboard. The whole song has an out of control sense to it, with lyrics like "A day in the life well nobody laughed/Look to the days how long can this last." Feedback screeches at the end, resembling an explosion, with Stipe vocally imitating the sound. Directly opposing this chaos is "Flowers of Guatemala," a lovely ballad. Finally, the environmental theme of "Cuyahoga" mixes both sadness and optimism. "Let's put our heads together, and start a new country up/Our father's father's father tried, erased the parts he didn't like," Stipe sings, but then laments pollution's effect on nature: "This is where we walked, this is where we swam/Take a picture here, take a souvenir." Stipe puts emotion and conviction into these words, as does Berry and Mills.
Even though Stipe may profess ambivalence about Life's Rich Pageant, it remains one of R.E.M.'s greatest albums and a high point of 1980s rock. It also represents the band's crossroads, when they were on the cusp of even greater popularity. Their next work, Document, would skyrocket them to fame with the first single, "The One I Love." While it may not be as well known as their late '80s and '90s output, Life's Rich Pageant still has resonance today, both in meaning and sound.