Lifes Rich Pageant by R.E.M.

Lifes Rich Pageant (apostrophe deliberately left out; the mistake was made by the printers, and the band decided to leave the title as it was) was released in 1986, and was R.E.M.'s fourth album, and probably the most immediate-sounding work they had recorded to that point. The album sounds open, brash and confident, a world away from the claustrophobia of their previous album, Fables Of The Reconstruction, or the subtle difference of their debut, Murmur.

This was due to a couple of factors; first, they were working with a new producer, Don Gehman (who had previously worked with The Bee Gees and John Cougar Mellencamp), who imposed a very relaxing regime on the band during the recording of the album - meaning they only spent half their day in the studio, and the rest swimming, or playing golf, or just goofing off; second, the band were coming into the studio with a cache of road-tested songs that they were happy with, and so they felt confident; and thirdly, Gehman changed the way they recorded the songs. On previous albums, Stipe's vocals had been pushed back in the mix, so that his words weren't clear, but now Gehman was going through his lyrics with him, and Stipe felt more sure of what he wanted to say, and so the vocals were more prominent, which altered the whole sound and feel of the album.

Track listing:

  1. Begin The Begin
  2. These Days
  3. Fall On Me
  4. Cuyahoga
  5. Hyena
  6. Underneath The Bunker
  7. The Flowers Of Guatemala
  8. I Believe
  9. What If We Give It Away
  10. Just A Touch
  11. Swan Swan H
  12. Superman (G.Zekley/M. Bottler)
    And the following extra tracks were included on the 'IRS Vintage' edition, released in 1993:
  13. Tired Of Singing Trouble
  14. Rotary Ten
  15. Toys In The Attic (Perry/Tyler)
  16. Just A Touch (live)
  17. Dream (All I Have To Do) (Bryant)
  18. Swan Swan H (live accoustic)

All songs written by Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe, unless otherwise indicated.

For a change, a lot of the songs on Lifes Rich Pageant had pretty obvious themes, most of them ecological, political, or both. Fall On Me, probably the highlight of the album, is mainly about air pollution, although it manages to drag Gallileo in as well; Cuyahoga blends the plight of Native Americans with water pollution, the title being the native American name for a river in Ohio that is so polluted it sometimes catches fire. The gentle The Flowers OF Guatemala is about US intervention in Central America, and the rocking Hyena seems to be an anti nuclear weapons song, the line "The only thing to fear is fearlessness" being a paraphrase of Franklin Roosevelt.

The album is mainly divided between poppy rockers and gentle ballads; in the first camp, there are I Believe (" coyotes and time as an abstract"), the Patti Smith quoting Just A Touch (supposedly based on an incident Stipe witnessed, on the 16th of August, 1977, involving an Elvis impersonator named Orion), and the opener, Begin The Begin, in which they made an effort not to repeat any part of the song except the riff. The final track, Superman (a cover of a b-side by 60's Texan garage rock band The Clique, which, along with Underneath The Bunker, doesn't appear in the track listing on the sleeve) was the first cover they ever recorded for an album, and also the first song on which Mike Mills took the lead vocal, although he's ably backed by Michael Stipe throughout; and These Days seems to be a generic protest tune, for the use of angry young men. What If We Give It Away is a pretty gentle song, and is a substantially re-written version of a much older one, called Get On Your Way, which they used to play back in their days playing club dates in Athens; Just A Touch also dates back to that time, although it survives pretty much untouched.

The album's two oddities are Underneath The Bunker and Swan Swan H; Underneath The Bunker was written during the sessions for Fables Of The Reconstruction in London, after a visit to a Greek restaurant, but didn't fit on the album; and Swan Swan H is described by Peter Buck as "fake Irish folk music". The bonus tracks aren't really worth paying extra for; Tired of Singing Trouble is quite short, a bluesy/gospel piece sung almost a capella by Stipe. Toys in the Attic is a really fun cover, and Rotary Ten is an interesting, Manciniesque instrumental, but both of them are available on Dead Letter Office. The live version of Just A Touch is pretty much the same as the studio version, and the live accoustic version of Swan Swan H is fairly rough, with Stipe seeming to fluff some of his lines. Dream (All I Have To Do) is a pretty straight cover of the song made famous by The Everly Brothers, and is notable for Stipe and Mills' wonderful harmonies. Both Dream (All I Have To Do) and the live version of Swan Swan H were recorded for Athens, GA Inside/Out, an MTV documentary on the town's burgeoning garage rock/folk rock scene.

To sum up, Lifes Rich Pageant was a signal of intent for R.E.M., and a prototype for their watershed album, Document; which would be more political, more open, and hugely successful. The title was a line spoken by Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau in the film A Shot In The Dark; whenever anything went wrong for his, he would shrug it off as being part of life's rich pageant. The album cover was a hidden, and quite bad, pun; the top half being the top half of a photo of Bill Berry, and the bottom half a drawing of some bison; i.e. Buffalo Bill. Oh, Mr Stipe, how our sides are splitting. But Lifes Rich Pageant is still one of my favourite R.E.M. albums.

Some information taken from "The Complete Guide To The Music Of R.E.M." by Peter Hogan

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