Coming off the dark and mysterious Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M. were poised for a more direct approach with their fourth album. Lifes Rich Pageant would be produced by Don Gehman, who had just finished work on John Cougar Mellencamp’s outstanding Scarecrow. The clear and distinct sound Gehman is famous for is the most obvious benefit of bringing him on board. Also, the songs that R.E.M. were writing were much more straightforward than previous efforts. When these elements came together in the spring of 1986, the result was one of the band’s greatest recordings.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Lifes Rich Pageant, Capitol/ I.R.S. have just issued a lavishly packaged, two-CD box set. Like the commemorative editions of Murmur, Reckoning, and Fables of the Reconstruction, the Lifes Rich Pageant (25th Anniversary Edition) one has some great bonus materials. All of that would be so much fluff, though, if not for the music of the original album. And as any R.E.M. fan will tell you, the 12 tracks the group recorded all those years ago were some of their best ever.
The album begins with “Begin The Begin,” an unequivocal statement of purpose for the group. Over Peter Buck’s marvelously staccato lead guitar, Michael Stipe declares his intentions, “Let’s begin again, like Martin Luther zen.” Bill Berry’s drums drive the tune forward, and are clearer sounding than ever before. The ethereal background vocals of Mike Mills make an outstanding counterpoint to Stipe, while his bass holds the whole thing together.
These traits coalesce even more completely on the first single, “Fall On Me.” This haunting, medium-tempo cut addresses a topic the band has shown a particular affinity for: its concerns over environmental issues. As if to emphasize the point, the very next track is “Cayuhoga.” The song is about the toxic-waste-filled Cayuhoga River, in Ohio. As one of the most polluted rivers in the nation, the Cayuhoga would regularly catch fire.
Continuing the soft political vein of the record is “The Flowers Of Guatemala.” This intricate ballad is a near-perfect construction, in large part due to the guitar of Peter Buck. His solo in the mid-section offers a sublime commentary on Stipe’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics. In contrast to the more candid statements Stipe would make in the future, “The Flowers Of Guatemala” is shaded. The song’s subtext is of the shameful conduct of the U.S. towards the people of Guatemala in the early eighties.
Lifes Rich Pageant has been unfairly categorized as R.E.M.’s political record, but as the title suggests, there is much more going on here. Exhibit A would be “Underneath The Bunker,” which is a salsa number, of all things. In a more traditional style comes “I Believe,” where country, and specifically honky-tonk music, is explored.
The other side of the coin is represented by “These Days” and “Just A Touch.” Both tracks show the harder-edged side of the band, albeit with a pop sensibility. In fact, “Just A Touch” nails the punk/power-pop combination that contemporaries Husker Dü were so well known for.
“Swan Song H” has received a lot of attention over the years. There is a similarity (in spirit at least) to what Mickey Newbury created with his “American Trilogy.” Like a lot of the subject matter on Fables Of The Reconstruction, R.E.M. are curious about their Southern heritage. The paradoxes of being young, white musicians growing up in Georgia are rich. “Swan Song H” concerns Civil War-era pirates, and the acoustic ballad sounds like nothing else on the album.
The final track is a cover of The Clique’s “Superman.“ To end such a powerful album with a tune like this is just plain weird. But they do a good job with it. Maybe the idea was to just keep us guessing. Or maybe it was more sinister, for they do begin the song with some sampled dialog from a Godzilla film.
Besides the remastered original album, the 25th anniversary edition of Lifes Rich Pageant has a bonus disc featuring 19 previously unreleased demos, recorded in March 1986 at John Keane’s Studio in Athens, Georgia. Except for “Superman,” the entire album is previewed. There are eight additional tunes, including such greats as “Rotary Ten” and “Mystery To Me.” Also included in the package is a poster-sized reproduction of the album cover, postcards, and a newly commissioned booklet with an essay by noted rock writer Parke Puterbaugh. The whole set is housed in a sturdy lift-top box.
Lifes Rich Pageant is without a doubt one of R.E.M.’s very best efforts, and this 25th Anniversary Edition is a fitting tribute to it.