Thursday, February 9, 2023

REM #4: Life's Rich Pageant

Release Date: July 28, 1986

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Michael Mills (bass, keyboards); Bill Berry (percussion)

Produced by Don Gehman

Track List: Begin the Begin; These Days; Fall on Me; Cuyahoga; Hyena; Underneath the Bunker

Side Two: The Flowers of Guatemala; I Believe; What If We Give it Away; Just a Touch; Swan Song H; Superman

Life's Rich Pageant signaled REM's transition from a college radio staple to one of America's premier bands on the cusp of superstardom.

"Begin the Begin" serves as an overture for the album which elliptically touches upon the state of the nation in the late Reagan era. The lyrics here are about seizing the moment and eschewing apathy, extorting, "Example, the finest example is you." In a similar vein, "These Days" could serve as a Gen X anthem, an update of "Radio Free Europe" reimagined as a summertime jangle. "Fall on Me" is richly melodic in the classic REM way, also well suited for a children's singalong.

"Cuyahoga" carries along the ecological theme running through the record (the river that burned - also covered in Randy Newman's "Burn On") and ties it to a lost childhood, and uses the imagery as a call for renewal:

Let's put our heads together and start a new country up
Up underneath the riverbed we'll burn the river down

"Hyena" is widely viewed as a nuclear war analogy, or more generally the predatory nature of man. Originally a hidden track, the playful "Underneath the Bunker," is mostly an instrumental with a pastiche Spanish sound.

"The Flowers of Guatemala" obliquely references the consequences of U.S. foreign policy in Central America, a mid-tempo track with effective harmonies. "I Believe" is about realizations that come with late stage youth. Another song of possibilities and epiphanies, "What if we give it away?" could be read as a mission statement for the band. "Just a Touch" goes back to the punk origins of REM, the lyrics mimic the eccentricates of a jaded teenager in the album's most frantic song. 

"Swan Song H" breaks down time barriers in its evocation of past wars, ghostly in tone and delivery. For the final track, REM performed a cover version of "Superman" originally by Texas based band The Clique. A favorite of the band's since their early days, the song imagines Superman fuming over losing his girl to another guy, ending the record on an effusive note.

A record of seasoned and youthful ruminations with one eye cast to the past and another eye looking forward, Life's Rich Pageant could be considered by turns sincere and playful. Mixed emotions run through the record, the ebb and flow of swirling possibilities in the middle of the 1980s.

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