Lifes Rich Pageant

Lifes Rich Pageant

The members of R.E.M. liked the sound of John Mellencamp’s rock radio hits—especially their booming drums and weighty guitar sounds. So they hired his producer, Don Gehman, to guide their fifth album, Lifes Rich Pageant. Bassist Mike Mills later said they wanted to move away from the “murky feelings and sounds” of earlier albums, and Gehman’s goals were to push Michael Stipe to articulate clearly—which the singer had avoided—and to write lyrics that were less enigmatic and stated their themes more directly. Gehman made much more progress with his first goal than with his second. R.E.M. songs had always existed within their own strange and hermetic world where, as in the dream state that gave the band its name, images were vivid and personally meaningful, but didn’t always make sense. Still, Stipe had plenty to say on Lifes Rich Pageant. Released in 1986, the album was recorded in the midst of Ronald Reagan’s second term as president, and it marks the beginning of Stipe’s interest in political themes (not that it was evident to most listeners). He described the opening song, “Begin the Begin,” as a call to activism, and the lyrics mention Myles Standish, the bloodthirsty military commander of colonial Massachusetts. But not many rock fans understood the reference, unless they had an encyclopedia next to their stereo. Other sentiments in the song were more self-evident, like “silence means approval,” or the observation that power is “the only vote that matters.” And in the next song, “These Days,” Stipe sings, “We are hope despite the times”—about as clear and direct as he can get. Elsewhere on Lifes Rich Pageant, Stipe sings about the genocide of Native Americans (“Cuyahoga”), the South’s defeat in the Civil War (“Swan Swan H”), and the oppression of political prisoners in Central America (“The Flowers of Guatemala”)—you don’t have to understand the subject matter to enjoy these songs. Drummer Bill Berry shines on the uptempo songs, and shows his slippery power on the chorus of “Hyena,” where he shifts to double time and plays accents on the ride cymbal. Though it didn’t hit Huey Lewis-like levels, Lifes Rich Pageant would become R.E.M.’s best-selling record up to that point, thanks to Gehman’s production, the band’s expert dynamics, and two great singles: “Fall on Me” bolsters Stipe’s keening chorus and ardent vocals with countermelodies sung by Mills (“What is it up in the air for?”) and Berry (“It’s gonna fall”). And on “Superman,” a cover of an obscure 1969 song by The Clique, Mills takes his first lead vocal and throws himself into the song’s sweetly delusional theme.

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