Lifes Rich Pageant is not R.E.M.’s greatest achievement. Commercially, both Out Of Time and Automatic For The People were bigger hits, proving that the band could reach a mainstream audience without compromising their artistic integrity. From an influence standpoint, it is hard to deny Murmur or Document as the most “important” R.E.M. records, with the former establishing a new brand of Southern rock that drew more from The Velvet Underground than The Allman Brothers, while the latter showed R.E.M. taking their trademark sound and bending it enough to reach the arena stages that seemed unrealistic at the time for something deemed “college rock.” Lifes Rich Pageant is almost a secondary album in the R.E.M. canon, yet a revisit to the classic reveals not only one of the most energetically fun R.E.M. records, but also showcases a band that might have been at their peak as songwriters, seeming to effortlessly layer melodies on top of melodies without the knowledge that what they were doing was special. Well, it was.
Now 25 years old, Lifes Rich Pageant gets a double disc reissue full of demos from the 1986 recording sessions that showcase this golden age of the Athens, GA band. Not that the album needs more to stand on its own. Written to be a more rocking counterpart to their previous effort, Fables Of The Reconstruction, Pageant starts off like a gun shot with the combination of “Begin The Begin” and “These Days.” The former is still a frequent opener to R.E.M. concerts, while the latter boils with intensity that the band has frequently tried to recapture (Monster, Accelerate), with mixed results. Later, deep cuts like “Hyena” and “I Believe” (a personal favorite) continue to apply the pressure, with “I Believe” beginning as a banjo diversion, only to come together with Michael Stipe’s recurring introduction of “when I was young,” reminding listeners now that this band used to be young, that the puzzle-piece perfect harmony of the chorus could only be made by a band that was “young and full of grace.”
Lifes Rich Pageant only contained two singles, both of which are mid-tempo, one being the Mike Mills-sung cover of The Clique’s “Superman.” The other, an environmental anthem, still remains one of R.E.M.’s finest accomplishments: the immortal “Fall On Me.” On the second disk of this collection, the demo of “Fall On Me” contains a different melody for the verse all together, showing a distinct direction the song could have gone and (probably) would have been every bit as successful. And while these two cuts might be the most recognizable for R.E.M. novices, a couple of others hold their ground the best through the harsh reflection of time: “Cuyahoga” and “Swan Swan H.” Neither song feels completely in place on Lifes Rich Pageant, but, rather, showcases a bit of the R.E.M. to come – what would happen when this direction of the band had come to completion and they would start a new avenue in the early 90s.
Most remarkable about the Lifes Rich Pageant sessions is the ease with which these songs seem to have been created. Two demos featured on this reissue’s latter half, “Bad Day” and “All The Right Friends,” would be a couple of the band’s finest singles of the 2000s, appearing on compilation discs with new life. Yeah, it is both sad and awesome that Lifes Rich Pageant‘s throwaways are good enough to be standalones. Other demos, like an early version of “I Believe,” show a song still in process. The verse of “I Believe” is hummed, with only the chorus holding proper lyrics. Michael Stipe’s words can often sound like a combination of words that sound good together (rather than actually mean something) and free-standing turns of phrase, something that Pavement would later demonstrate in direct influence. On the demo of “I Believe,” you can actually hear Stipe working on putting down words in a brief glimpse behind the curtain that listeners are rarely treated to.
Without even discussing the always-capable percussion of Bill Berry (who is the only member to be on the album’s cover) and the signature guitar leads of Peter Buck, and without criticizing the few demos that seem to be thrown on the collection for the hell of it (“Salsa,” “March Song”), this reissue of Lifes Rich Pageant stands as treasure in any record collection, because, when you take away record sales and historical context and leave the plain sounds that come out of the speakers, there aren’t many better products to be consumed than this album. Time has only been kind to Lifes Rich Pageant, and, hopefully, not much more time will be required to it to take its place in the rock and roll canon as the practically perfect album that it is.
Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire of Smoke Fairies talks with Beats Per Minute about some of their favorite records.
Arrica Rose talks with Beats Per Minute about some of her favorite records.
London-based multi-instrumentalist Duke Garwood takes some time to talk briefly with Beats Per Minute about a few of his favorite records.
Latest posts from The Film Stage