REM - Lifes Rich Pageant
"Birdie in the hand for life's rich demand
The insurgency began and you missed it
I looked for it and I found it
Myles Standish proud, congratulate me"
('Begin the Begin')
A quarter of a century: where the hell did that go? REM circa 2011 are an older, wiser beast, no doubt. If the album sales are merely respectable these days, and the critics polite rather than fawning, for a band about to enter its fourth decade, their way with a (sizeable, still) crowd at least speaks volumes for their enduring live reputation. But here they are in that original college friends line-up (before drummer Bill Berry sought the sanctuary of his farm), their world about to explode as this, their fourth album, inched them ever closer to major label mega-stardom. On reflection, it’s easy to see Lifes Rich Pageant, originally released in 1986, as their most pivotal record, broadening and beefing up their sound, opening new and thrilling lines of communication and acting as an irresistible driver towards the de-cluttering of the template that would come just a year later with the uncompromising clang of Document, a record whose success would see them decamp from tiny IRS into the arms of industry behemoth Warner Bros.
If its successor mercilessly jettisoned the ‘Byrdsian’ guitars and replaced jingle jangle with crunching overdrive and elementary, proto-grunge riffery, Lifes Rich Pageant wasn’t quite ready to banish Peter Buck to the bar chord ward. Here, he’s as eloquent as he ever was, Rickenbacker and McGuinn-isms intact. But you sense change in the air. New producer Don Gehman brought this group of unassuming musicians to the front of the stage, stomped on their all-consuming modesty and, as interviews at the time confirmed, got them fighting for territory for the first time. Buck finds the previously unavailable no 11 (see the howling feedback storm he conjures up over the first few bars of ‘Begin the Begin’) and the previously inscrutable Michael Stipe finally clears his throat. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. It never was. REM, contrary bastards to the end were never formulaic and never stooped so low as to make life easy for the listener.
Lifes Rich Pageant is something of a halfway house, a band in a bubbling state of flux. Yes, Buck raises his game (see his breathtaking solo on ‘Flowers of Guatemala’, his feverish shredding on ‘Begin the Begin’, ‘These Days’ and ‘Just a Touch’) but the likes of ‘I Believe’ and ‘Hyena’ are blinding examples of his stock-in-trade, the singing Rickenbacker and its dizzying arpeggios. Stipe is transformed. With the dispiriting and difficult recording sessions for ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’ behind them, the singer sheds several layers of enigma. Yes, graspable narrative is at times as frustratingly out of reach as ever but for once it’s not the vocal production that disorientates; angular poetics and surrealist wordplay combine to set ‘meaning’ frustratingly, deliciously out of reach. For the first time we didn’t need a lyric sheet. We just needed York notes.
There’s a burning fury underlying Document but here, the tone is less raging and more reflective. Typified by the brooding ‘Cuyahoga’ (“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 welds political engagement and commentary to scraps of American folklore, a notable sense of history, an empathy with nature and a rallying call for change. ‘Fall on Me’, another of those near-hits from the period, got REM onto mainstream UK radio for the first time. “Feathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the air,” sings Stipe as debate raged about the song's lyrics. "Buy the sky and sell the sky" - was it not, for once, obvious?
Elsewhere, ‘Just A Touch’ (a Stooges-esque wig-out) and ‘These Days’ posit howlaround kinetics against Stipe’s ever-present idealism: “We are young despite the years we are concern / We are hope despite the times”. A brace of oddities keep things reassuringly off-kilter. ‘Underneath the Bunker’ is a minute and a half of Latin madness, noir tango via The Violent Femmes. A cover of The Clique’s ‘Superman’ sees bassist Mike Mills take lead vocals. If the muscular ‘Begin the Begin’ is the album’s most startling reinvention, surely ‘I Believe’ is its best and best-loved song. Still a live favourite to this day, here’s Stipe as a modern day Huck Finn, a soulful adventurer in a world reduced to boundaries, timelines and the mindless race for the prize: “I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract / Explain the change, the difference between / What you want and what you need, there's the key, / Your adventure for today, what do you do between the horns of the day?”
Lifes Rich Pageant further illustrated, at that moment, REM’s emerging deftness with the fickle fancies of those unforgiving bedfellows – fame and underground credibility. By the time they signed with Warner Bros just two years later, they claimed it was their new home’s ability to send their crooked gospel out to the world that led them to finally make their move to a major label. And still they were cool! (Adam Duritz of Counting Crows would, just a few years later, bemoan REM’s career path and their emergence from a scene that allowed them to gain commercial and artistic stature over a period of years. We’ll never be cool, he ruefully acknowledged, as his band’s debut single was picked up by MTV and A-listed by radio.)
Here then, particularly in light of their previous album’s grey, inward trajectory, is a band opening up its sound, opening its arms. Lifes Rich Pageant carries in those arms a multitude of ideas and concerns but it buzzes with a warm glow and invites the listener to enter a world they may previously have struggled to live in. It is joyous, uproarious, unquestionable evidence that rock’s historical tradition could go crashing into the alternative world head on and see both emerge without a scratch. No wonder it became their best-selling album to date. Accessible but challenging, it’s the key to much of REM’s later success. Its breadth and spread holds pointers to both the brace of stripped back noiseworks that followed (Document and Green) and the expansive, heavy-on-the-arrangements pop (Out of Time and Automatic for the People) that would make them one of the biggest bands in the world. They’re still playing these songs. And we, as proven by this timely and essential re-release, are still listening.