On 28th July i.e. two days ago, it was the thirty- fifth anniversary of the release of R.E.M.'s fourth album Lifes Rich Pageant (no apostrophe, Stipe's punctuation). I've been meaning to write a post about that album for some time and if I'd been better prepared it would have gone up on Wednesday but I didn't realise it was the anniversary until yesterday so, we are where we are, as people like to say.
R.E.M. recorded Lifes Rich Pageant in Belmont, Indiana with Don Gehman at the producer's desk. The recording of the previous album Fables Of The Reconstruction (another album I've been meaning to write about but not got around to yet) was fraught with problems- recorded during a cold, damp winter in London with Joe Boyd producing and the band homesick, an album that took a while to grow on people. Some of the band were unhappy with it but its reputation has grown over the decades since its release. Lifes Rich pageant was well received from the start and a definite attempt to push on, gain more listeners, release an album which would drive the songs further into college rock radio and beyond. Gehman was best known for his work with John Cougar Mellencamp and his production and the directness of the songs are in stark contrast to the mystery and obliqueness of Murmur and Reckoning and the Southern storytelling lyrics of Fables. Stipe is to the point, writing lyrics that mean something and stand for something, six years into Reagan's America and everything that went with that. Buck, Mills and Berry meanwhile play harder and with a rockier edge, stripping back and away from the denser jangle of their early songs. The environment is a key theme along with the state of the nation and US foreign policy. Beginning with Begin The Begin, a song kicking off with heavy guitar notes and Stipe's lower register, an urgency that jumps out of the speakers, and words that point a finger- 'silence means security/ silence means approval'. The song finishes with 'let's begin again', a lyrical motif he comes back to on Coyahoga ('let's put our heads together/ And start a new country up'). The second song blasts straight out of the blocks and leaves no doubt where the band's politics are at... 'We are young despite the years/ We are concern/ We are hope despite the times'.
There's still some fairly obscure lines about rearranging scales, marching to the sea, slapping your hat on your head, but These Days, with Berry whacking the drums and Buck hitting the guitar strings hard, sounds like a group nailing their political colours to the mast. Stipe has said that he had some kind of breakdown in 1985 and when he began writing again he knew he had come out of his darkest, most depressive time- hence the songs for Pageant were inspired and forward looking. These Days is one of my favourite R.E.M. songs, a stark contrast to the songs of their first two albums but showing a band growing and changing while keeping their instincts and integrity intact.
The third song is in many ways the quintessential IRS years R.E.M. song, Fall On Me, a yearning, melodic, accessible song with lines about either acid rain or oppression (depending on when and who was asked). Mike Mills and Stipe sing it almost as a duet, Mills voice to the fore. After that Coyahoga, a beautiful, rousing song about the Coyahoga river, once so polluted that the river actually burned, contrasting the then current state of the river with the theft of the land from the American Indians. Stipe manages to write a positive lament, if that's possible, an optimistic call to arms- take the land back. Four songs in and possibly the strongest opening four songs of any R.E.M. album, the band then show their range- Hyena, a pacey rocker first recorded for Fables but not used- listen to the demo and its difficult to disagree with Buck who said that leaving it off Fables showed that the group 'obviously didn't know what we were doing'. It fits the rockier sound of Pageant better though so maybe the decision was right in the end.
Side two always seems slightly weaker to me. That's not to say the songs aren't good, they almost all are, but it just feels like the tempo drops a tad and the sequencing feels a bit random. The Flowers Of Guatemala is a wonderful, lilting folk rock tribute to the dead of that country, the genocide of the indigenous peoples and the USA's dirty wars in Latin America. What If We Give It Away (wistful jangle folk) and Just A Touch (fast, jumbled, feedback) are both fine but sound a bit jammed together. Swan Swan H is a civil war ballad. Lifes Rich Pageant closes with a cover of a daft 60s garage band song, Superman (by The Clique), sung by Mike Mills as Stipe wouldn't do it. It works really well, underlines what has gone before with a bit of bubblegum, a goofy contrast with the album's themes of change, politics, the environment, destruction of native peoples and their lands.
In the middle of all this on side two is I Believe, a song that sounds like it was written and recorded in the same instant as Begin The Begin and These Days, starting out with banjo and then suddenly Buck chiming in, Mills and Berry right on cue and fired up. Stipe, often asked by journalists what the songs were about and what he believed in, gives them what they want, a manifesto (of sorts)- 'when I was young and full of grace/ I spirited a rattlesnake' he lets fly, a startling opening couplet, before setting his beliefs out in full- 'I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract', 'the difference between what you want and what you need', 'trust in your calling... practice makes perfect... I believe in example/ I believe my throat hurts'.
That's what you get for asking.