Review Summary: Caught in transition between their indie roots and stadium-rock stardom, R.E.M. find righteousness and balance in variety.
sound driven by nothing more than the desire to make great rock songs, Lifes Rich Pageant
sounds purposeful from the first drum hit of “Begin the Begin.” The band’s progressive politics here are not as learned or as thoroughly explained as they would be on Document
, but the record is all the better for it – these lyrics come from the kind of instinctive, gut-level sense of injustice and desire for change that drives rock songs more effectively than poetic rewordings of The Nation
articles. “Begin the Begin” and “Cuyahoga” bristle with the need to start things over again even as Stipe concedes that if you “look to me for reason, it’s not there.” The impressionism of early ‘80s R.E.M. lyrics serves these songs brilliantly: “These Days” and “I Believe” are blazing calls to arms devoid of preaching that reward deeper readings. Even when Stipe addresses specific issues, like commodification and acid rain on “Fall On Me” and death squads on “Flowers of Guatemala,” he does so with a subtlety and grace that hits at core issues and broader principles. This combined with the universality of the major themes here - accumulation of power, imperialism, and environmental degradation - have given the record a sad timelessness that hyper-specific future tracks like “Exhuming McCarthy” and “Ignoreland” lack.
Musically, Lifes Rich Pageant
is all about balance – the stomping polemical post-punk of “These Days” with the disorienting salsa of “Underneath the Bunker,” the party-band joy of “Just a Touch” with the proto-Decemberists shanty “Swan Swan H,” “Hyena” with “Superman.” R.E.M. delicately manage to pull together these disparate sounds in a way that sounds impossibly coherent, especially impressive considering the track-list includes pre-Murmur
tour staples, a Civil War ballad pastiche, and a cover of an obscure ‘60s pop song. Even if “Swan” would theoretically make more sense on Fables
, and “Just a Touch” was written two years before the band even entered a studio, a common ineffable thread binds these tracks, and each dramatic change is refreshing rather than jarring. It certainly doesn’t hurt that many of these compositions are among the band’s best. “Fall On Me” might be the pinnacle of the Stipe/Mills collaboration, light and airy despite insistent drumming with a brilliant harmonic counterpoint in the chorus. In contrast, “These Days” sharpens the punch of “Radio Free Europe” with twice the intensity and a rising refrain that somehow makes even Mills sound aggressive (well, to the extent that that's possible). Also particularly strong are “I Believe,” which is along with “Just a Touch” one of the last jangle pop songs the band would put on a record, and “Superman,” a minor hit smartly delegated to Mike Mills which ends the relatively serious album on a mercifully cheerful note. The album is certainly not flawless – “What if We Give it Away"” in particular is pure filler – but perhaps no R.E.M. record so clearly shows the band’s range.
Lifes Rich Pageant
finds a great middle between the carefree consistent pop of R.E.M.’s early days and their hyper-political well-produced sound of the late ‘80s, showing off a mix of a subtlety and variety that neither period could boast. While not the best album of their career, Pageant
is the jewel of the IRS era and a superb rock record in its own right.