It’s 1986. R.E.M.’s previous album Fables Of The Reconstruction has not reaped the expected commercial rewards. Teaming the group up with legendary producer Joe Boyd has failed to produce bigger sales. Whoever imagined that in 1985 Joe Boyd was the one to help put R.E.M. into the big league had clearly not looked at the man’s track record. The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, Nico, Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson – wonderful music, but hardly bestsellers. What do you do when Joe Boyd’s magic touch doesn’t work, or rather works about as well in commercial terms as it’s always done? In 1986 you call in John Mellencamp’s producer Don Gehman and hope for that big crossover hit. Ain’t that America.
So if you’re using Mellencamp’s producer, and recording in Mellencamp’s studio, what makes you different from Mellencamp? The answer is ridiculously simple yet remains something ultimately unprovable by logic. R.E.M. were better. On Lifes Rich Pageant they may have come dangerously close to Mellencamp or Petty territory, with their post-punk edge all but invisible, but they were inherently superior. For one, what set them apart was Michael Stipe. Without him R.E.M. may indeed have been everything their detractors said they were. Neither Mellencamp nor Petty would have been capable of anything so poetic as the lyrics to ‘Swan Swan H’, even if the chords were a standard minor key folk waltz. Their turf was everyman observations, while Stipe mixed left-wing political concerns with defiant obscuritanism to produce something utterly unique. Lifes Rich Pageant follows the pattern of all R.E.M. albums up through Automatic For The People in that it remains a consistently brilliant creation despite lacking musical innovation or experimentation of any kind. They were simply great, end of story.
Having created the appropriate distance to indicate that this review will have a slightly detached yet ultimately positive viewpoint I now intend to cast this to the flames, and come right out and say that I adore R.E.M. and Lifes Rich Pageant. By that I mean I don’t just like this album, I mean I am obsessively in love with it. I mean I’m secretly checking this albums text messages and wondering who that person is who liked its last status update. Sure I could do without the ‘Superman’ cover but other than that we’re approaching perfection. When ‘Begin The Begin’ starts my heart flips over. All the way. Then there’s ‘These Days’. If you ever find me dying in the street don’t give me mouth to mouth (I don’t know where your filthy lips have been), just play me ”These Days’. Stand back though, I may levitate.
These songs are inside me, under my skin. The melody to ‘Fall On Me’ still catches me unawares, still creates THAT feeling in my chest. Don’t even get me started on ‘Hyena’ or ‘I Believe’. There are only so many times you can talk about jangling guitars and soaring vocals but Christ, R.E.M. had no right to be this good, this vital sounding. Even the Rain Dogs goof-off ‘Underneath The Bunker’ sounds fantastic. While writing this review I’m re-listening to the album and I find myself muttering “God, I love this song” out loud multiple times as if I’d somehow forgotten. This music means too much. It creates too many emotions. Best get a grip. Best get some distance.
Despite their conservative approach R.E.M. didn’t really sound like anyone from the 60s or 70s. They may have had that Byrdsian jangle going on, but they didn’t actually sound like The Byrds. They were traditional, but they weren’t trying to recreate the sound of another era. It’s a strange journey from being jealous of Pylon to recruiting John Mellencamp’s producer but you get the feeling that no matter who produced them R.E.M. would still have come out sounding just like R.E.M.. Perhaps Don Gehman gave the album some additional sonic clarity that allowed radio stations to feel comfortable playing the singles, but the songs still sounded mostly the same even in their demo versions. Lifes Rich Pageant isn’t a musical leap forward, but rather a further step down a particular musical trajectory. Orthodox but not ordinary, reverent but not replicators, R.E.M. were unique in that they had the ability to create something compelling from overused song-forms and conventional instrumentation. To this day it remains a rare occurrence.
(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)