“Life’s Rich Pageant” by R.E.M. (No. 42)
It’s almost by accident that I wound up being a big fan of R.E.M. A happy accident, I might add.
Earlier in this series I talked about my early obsession with Robyn Hitchcock. Not long after I became a big fan of Robyn Hitchcock, a friend of mine turned up with tickets to R.E.M.’s Green tour. Was I interested? “Dunno,” I responded, “I’m not really a big R.E.M. fan” – and threw out an unlikely scenario “unless Robyn Hitchcock is opening or something…” Turns out, yes, he was. So… I decided to brush up on my R.E.M.
Life’s Rich Pageant is one of my very favorite R.E.M. albums. It’s the last album before R.E.M. really took off, and has a lot of the feel of early R.E.M. – but finally moves Michael Stipe’s vocals to the forefront rather than burying them in the mix. It also has a decent mix of straight-forward rockers and oddball pieces that only indie bands can get away with.
Pageant jumps out of the gate with “Begin the Begin” – an absolutely blistering track that’s a bit harder than what you might expect from R.E.M. based on its earlier output. The gloves are off.
No quarter is given on “These Days,” either. If anything, it kicks it up a notch after “Begin the Begin.”
“Fall on Me” is no ballad, but it’s a little more thoughtful and focuses a bit more on the harmony. Still fast-paced and full of energy.
Stipe’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics are in full effect on “Cuyahoga,” which on a casual listen is full of profound and sentimental lyrics. On closer inspection, the song is propelled entirely by emotion, and its significance largely imparted by Stipe’s emoting and Peter Buck’s amazing guitar work.
“Hyena” has a driving beat, mad props to Mike Mills and Bill Berry as one of the most solid rhythm sections of the 80s and 90s. I particularly dig the double-time beat on “Hyena” and heavy reliance on the ride cymbal here.
R.E.M. keeps its indie cred on Pageant
“Underneath the Bunker” is one of those oddball tunes you don’t put out when you’re on a major label. An odd, I want to say mariachi sounding, beat and Stipe’s vocals being filtered through something that sounds like an overseas long-distance phone call gives this an odd character. It’s fun, but not too substantial.
“The Flowers of Guatemala” is a pretty little tune. It slows things down significantly, and feels weighty.
Then there’s my very favorite track on the album, “I Believe” which kicks off with high-speed banjo. Then repeats with the same tune played on Buck’s Rickenbacker. When Stipe sings “I believe in coyotes, and time as an abstract” it’s just incredibly persuasive. Again, stream-of-consciousness, doesn’t pay to think about it too closely. But, damn if Stipe doesn’t make a believer out of you all the same.
“What if We Give it Away?” and “Just a Touch,” are more of the high-energy, high-emotion, pieces that are entirely emotive but maybe not so prosaic if you actually read the lyrics. My advice? Just go with it. This is quality mid-80s alt-rock, indie gibberish. You can’t even get that quality gibberish anymore.
I love the dirge-like quality of the acoustic “Swan Swan H.”
Finally, there’s the cover of “Superman” that starts off with some static-y dialog from an early radio version of Superman. This is your bar-band rocker, just straight-up fun and dance-able.
R.E.M. is at the top of its game here. Buck’s guitar playing is fantastic all the way through. The rhythm section is tight, powerful, and dropping hooks you can’t resist. Stipe finally sounds like he’s comfortable at the front of the band rather than mumbling in the background. Not that the mumbles were bad, mind you, just it’s good to hear Stipe out front and proud.
This might not be R.E.M.’s best album, strictly speaking, but it’s a great starter album for anybody who missed this ride the first time around.