Album Review: REM - Lifes Rich Pageant * * * *
From Murmur in 1983 to New Adventures in Hi-Fi in 1995, REM released one remarkable album after another. As a run of top releases it has few rivals -- think Bowie's rich vein of form in the 70s or Talking Heads' productive burst a few years either side of 1980.
Lifes Rich Pageant (stylised without apostrophe) was the band's fourth album, released in 1986. It marked a noticeable shift from the murky, mysterious sound that had so captivated audiences to more anthemic, politically charged songs that would characterise REM in the years to come.
And Michael Stipe's vocals -- compellingly unintelligible in the early years -- changed forever, as he started to enunciate every word.
This was the album that essentially bridged the gap between the college rock band whose Murmur trumped Michael Jackson's Thriller as Rolling Stone's album of 1983 and America's premier stadium outfit at the end of that decade.
Yet, it says something about the quartet's gifts that as they moved into the mainstream their brand of Southern rock -- inflected with West Coast pop and time-worn folk -- remained largely intact.
Quarter of a century later and the bulk of Lifes Rich Pageant's songs sound just as potent as they did on original release: Peter Buck's guitar elevates the pulse-quickening Begin the Begin; Mike Mills has rarely sounded better as he takes lead vocals on the bridge of Fall on Me; while Stipe sounds like a man reborn on the strident I Believe.
Elsewhere, man's environmental destruction is examined, obliquely, on Cuyahoga and, poignantly, on The Flowers of Guatemala. And there's a lovely bit of self-indulgence from Stipe and Mills as they share vocals on Superman, a minor 1969 hit for fringe Texan band The Clique.
As with the three previous REM albums reissued to mark their 25th anniversary, this comes with a second album of bonus material. Dubbed The Athens Demos, these 19 tracks show just how fully formed they were before producer Don Gehman got his hands on them. Seven didn't make the album, but two -- Bad Day and All the Right Friends -- would surface, re-jigged, years later when REM were at a low ebb creatively.
The album may not be as startling as Murmur (or its underrated follow-up, Reckoning), or as potent as their next salvo, Document and Green, but it's an intriguing snap-shot of one of America's finest ever bands at a crucial stage in their development.
Burn it: Begin the Begin; Cuyahoga; Fall on Me
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