Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[Welcome to Thirty Year Thursday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1986]
Album: LIFES RICH PAGEANT
I fell in love with R.E.M. the first time I heard “Catapult,” from their debut album Murmur, on the radio in 1983. They were one of the first independent, “alternative” bands to receive exposure on FM stations that were playing what is now known as classic rock. It didn’t initially sound like they were doing anything groundbreaking, but there was something special in the combination of Michael Stipe’s semi-mumbled vocal delivery & cryptic lyrics, Peter Buck’s jangly-yet-aggressive guitar attack, Bill Berry’s deceptively impressive drumming and Mike Mills’ sympathetic bass playing & backing vocals. After two albums highlighted by the punchy production of Don Dixon & Mitch Easter, and a third release overseen by British folk legend Joe Boyd (all of which are in my R.E.M. Top 5), they turned to producer Don Gehman, who was best known for his work with John Cougar Mellencamp, for Lifes Rich Pageant (the apostrophe purposely omitted from the first word).
For some reason this record never had the same impact on me as its three predecessors, although more than half of its songs are as good as anything in their discography. “Fall On Me” was their biggest hit to date, highlighted by that amazing chorus with Mills’ counter-melody. “Superman” is a cover of an obscure 1969 b-side by The Clique that R.E.M. made their own, featuring Mills on lead vocals for the first time. Album opener “Begin The Begin” is a driving rocker with a cool Peter Buck guitar figure and that memorable recurring stop-start motif. “I Believe” starts with banjo picking before morphing into a driving, jangly rocker with an uplifting chorus. Counting Crows, who burst onto the scene the following decade, were clearly listening & taking notes. “Cuyahoga” is a standout track, with that pulsing bass intro, moody verses & soaring choruses. “Swan Swan H” is another favorite, with its beautiful melody & waltz tempo. Clearly I’m a big fan of many of these songs, but what’s kept me from fully embracing it is that many of the uptempo rockers (like “These Days,” “Hyena” and “Just A Touch”) sound like retreads of stronger tracks from previous albums. I’m sure there are plenty of fans who feel differently, and if Lifes Rich Pageant was your first exposure to R.E.M. you probably love those songs more than I do. It’s my wife’s favorite R.E.M. album and I know she’s not the only one. I’m sure all R.E.M. fans will agree that it hasn’t aged a day over the last thirty years, and it will still sound fresh three decades from now.