Wallace Wylie

R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant (25th Anniversary Edition) (Capitol)

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R.E.M. - Lifes Rich Pageant

by Wallace Wylie

It’s 1986. R.E.M.’s previous album Fables Of The Reconstruction has not reaped the expected commercial rewards. Teaming the group up with legendary producer Joe Boyd has failed to produce bigger sales. Whoever imagined that in 1985 Joe Boyd was the one to help put R.E.M. into the big league had clearly not looked at the man’s track record. The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, Nico, Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson – wonderful music, but hardly bestsellers. What do you do when Joe Boyd’s magic touch doesn’t work, or rather works about as well in commercial terms as it’s always done? In 1986 you call in John Mellencamp’s producer Don Gehman and hope for that big crossover hit. Ain’t that America.

So if you’re using Mellencamp’s producer, and recording in Mellencamp’s studio, what makes you different from Mellencamp? The answer is ridiculously simple yet remains something ultimately unprovable by logic. R.E.M. were better. On Lifes Rich Pageant they may have come dangerously close to Mellencamp or Petty territory, with their post-punk edge all but invisible, but they were inherently superior. For one, what set them apart was Michael Stipe. Without him R.E.M. may indeed have been everything their detractors said they were. Neither Mellencamp nor Petty would have been capable of anything so poetic as the lyrics to ‘Swan Swan H’, even if the chords were a standard minor key folk waltz. Their turf was everyman observations, while Stipe mixed left-wing political concerns with defiant obscuritanism to produce something utterly unique. Lifes Rich Pageant follows the pattern of all R.E.M. albums up through Automatic For The People in that it remains a consistently brilliant creation despite lacking musical innovation or experimentation of any kind. They were simply great, end of story.

Having created the appropriate distance to indicate that this review will have a slightly detached yet ultimately positive viewpoint I now intend to cast this to the flames, and come right out and say that I adore R.E.M. and Lifes Rich Pageant. By that I mean I don’t just like this album, I mean I am obsessively in love with it. I mean I’m secretly checking this albums text messages and wondering who that person is who liked its last status update. Sure I could do without the ‘Superman’ cover but other than that we’re approaching perfection. When ‘Begin The Begin’ starts my heart flips over. All the way. Then there’s ‘These Days’. If you ever find me dying in the street don’t give me mouth to mouth (I don’t know where your filthy lips have been), just play me ”These Days’. Stand back though, I may levitate.

These songs are inside me, under my skin. The melody to ‘Fall On Me’ still catches me unawares, still creates THAT feeling in my chest. Don’t even get me started on ‘Hyena’ or ‘I Believe’. There are only so many times you can talk about jangling guitars and soaring vocals but Christ, R.E.M. had no right to be this good, this vital sounding. Even the Rain Dogs goof-off ‘Underneath The Bunker’ sounds fantastic. While writing this review I’m re-listening to the album and I find myself muttering “God, I love this song” out loud multiple times as if I’d somehow forgotten. This music means too much. It creates too many emotions. Best get a grip. Best get some distance.

Despite their conservative approach R.E.M. didn’t really sound like anyone from the 60s or 70s. They may have had that Byrdsian jangle going on, but they didn’t actually sound like The Byrds. They were traditional, but they weren’t trying to recreate the sound of another era. It’s a strange journey from being jealous of Pylon to recruiting John Mellencamp’s producer but you get the feeling that no matter who produced them R.E.M. would still have come out sounding just like R.E.M.. Perhaps Don Gehman gave the album some additional sonic clarity that allowed radio stations to feel comfortable playing the singles, but the songs still sounded mostly the same even in their demo versions. Lifes Rich Pageant isn’t a musical leap forward, but rather a further step down a particular musical trajectory. Orthodox but not ordinary, reverent but not replicators, R.E.M. were unique in that they had the ability to create something compelling from overused song-forms and conventional instrumentation. To this day it remains a rare occurrence.

3 Responses to R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant (25th Anniversary Edition) (Capitol)

  1. robotsdancingalone July 21, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    A great fucking review. ‘Lifes Rich Pageant follows the pattern of all R.E.M. albums up through Automatic For The People in that it remains a consistently brilliant creation despite lacking musical innovation or experimentation of any kind. They were simply great, end of story’ – oh so true.

  2. Janglebells September 21, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    Hi Wallace!
    It´s been a relief following the states of your your review because all the time it knocked in my head saying: “Yes, that´s exactly how I dig it too”. It´s quite an abstracte feeling declaring love and possesion to a captured sound recording; but then I love having abstracte feelings. Back the timeline: In 87 I discovered our Athens chaps on radio by accident… I never heard that song before and it came across mighty; the thundering drums the pearly 12 string Rickenbacker and that husky, yet rich razorblade voice cut its way through the perfect arrangement yelling “Fire”. Here we go. That was the thing; I knew that I was in awe of rare greatness, headed to the local video shop (Yes, you could take cds home for 2 days, As I recall for 3,50 DM… God I miss that shop and that great CD collection this guy had: R.e.m., Nick Cave, Sonic youth etc…) and witnessed the heights of “Document” for the first time entirely. I´m not trying to gbuild a up a myth that doesn´t exist, but back then it was an almost solitare discovery that was guided by sheer adoration and overwhelming, yet amazed happiness…Can it be true? This music exists and only few know about it?! (I think it was different in the states, but in Germany people started R.E.M. with “Losing my religion”. ayear later followed “Green” and I thought: “This might be the best band on God´s earth”..Money was thin for an addicted 15 years old music lover but no time was wasted to buy my copy of “Lifes rich pageant” in the only worthy record shop that me hometown used to have… Back then I didn´t own a cd player (Spring 89) so I had to tape it, like I always did in “these days” (!). It was a chrome tapes that I favoured then, I think Maxell XL-II and Sony UX-Pro I think were the ones…Marvelous sound. I don´t recall it being Monday or Tuessday or whatever… But it was a sunny, airy spring day. This I won´t forget… While taping the yet to come life- afirming experience I was sent to the supermarket by my mother. Never an uplifter but I took almost detached because I knew I had something to look for (I couldn´t hazard a guess at that moment which momentum was in front of me)… Hearing the playback of the cd on tape fror the first time I was blown away… I was deeply into R.E.M. by that time so they could not surprise with being stunning, but I loved it all. It was so perfect: The wet, punchy, airy and clear production (Hugs to Don Gehman) Bills clever and moving drumming, the shiny Rickenbacker and Acoustic guitar strums, Mike´s generous backing vocals, the banjo, the harmonium etc.. And on top of it Michael´s voice, flavoured with youthful joy. Every line he sang felt like having the sub-coda: “Here we are, this the shit man. You´ve never heard anything like this. Surrender, things won´t be the same for you again”. THat´s what I heard… I was so over excited the first runs of the album, cause I didn´t knowwhat to do: Just listen and party or going way into deep; listening to all the appearing sonic details, the lyrics, admiring the amazing songwriting crafts…?! That was a heck, but I felt life in me (Thanks to reigns of adrenalin that me brain made available) like I never did by just listening to tunes taht 4 guys had put on record… It´s 22 years on now and this is one the four albums that you´d be allowed to cut the soundtrack of my life from.. It hasn´t lost any of its glory, it has an authority of its own and I deeply respect and enjoy this fact. I´m nuts man, talking about a record like it was something made of flesh and blood.. But I´m sure you know that feeling; Your listening- joy makes it become something not the least abstract. It talks to you like an old friend. Sometimes, riding on a train, thinking of God knows what it comes to your head.. Don´t know why. It goes” Yeah, this is a f****g magic record, I`ll put it on at home”… I don´t want to go into the songs because you did it completly in my favour. Every second on LRP is pure perfection. Nothing I wish to be changed. I bought 3 different issues so far. My sacred first IRS (CBS distr. in Germany which made it available at least to a 15 years boy in the biggest and most expensive record shop we had) . The IRS vintage edition and know the remastered version. (Having to say that the remastred sound is almost an insult, but even that can´t destroy this work of art). Sometimes I wanted to buy 10 copies and give them away to make people share this almost odd experience, but then not everybody seems to dig it the way we do. Fair enough. People are not the same, really… Yes, I love this record… Listened to it hundred times and never get tired of it. No way. This record is a life (´) s rich pageant. Get it or you don´t deserve having had a life so far (Sorry, hints of a fanatical mind here). R.e.m. is an outstanding band even if the lost me to a certain extend with releasing the lush “Out of time”. But, you don´t lose everything over night. They still are capable of a haunting tune.. 1982-1988 is the real stuff to me, but this 1986 release immortalized them for me… Love, André

  3. Ninetyeightytwo September 22, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    This is exactly what I need right now. It might have been written before the split, but everyone else seems to be saying either “oh, so what, they did nothing good after 95 anyway” or, even worse, “oh, so what, they were awful.”

    What I’d really like to see, though, is an appraisal written by somebody who rates their post-95 work just as highly as the generally revered early work.

    I might write one myself. In fact, I will.

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