Life's Rich Pageant (25th Anniversary Edition)

R.E.M.

Capitol/I.R.S., 2011

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/04/2011

At least for the first two decades, R.E.M.'s progression could be neatly categorized in threes. The Murmur, Reckoning, and Fables Of The Reconstruction were the foundations of the band's "college rock" period, during which they built up a devoted following on campuses, but like fellow college rockers Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, found the band scraping by, traveling in run-down vans and going from city to city to promote their recordings.

For most of the '90s, the band went through their "blockbuster" period with the releases of Out Of Time, Automatic For The People, and Monster. This was the period where the band found multiplatinum success, occasionally produced "Video Of The Year"– style work (see "Losing My Religion") and could even decline to tour in support an album (see Automatic For The People). That leaves us with the "middle" period, which serves as the bridge between two very distinct periods of R.E.M.'s existence.

This "middle" period begins with 1986's Lifes Rich Pageant.  Where Fables Of The Reconstruction remains a flawed beauty of an album, this disc sounded like a band that viewed some parts of Fables as a mistake, and Lifes Rich Pageant as the corrective action. Recruiting John Mellencamp producer Don Gehman, there was no mistake that R.E.M. was not quite content in being college darlings a la Pixies. They had their heart set on taking on the then-impenetrable world of mainstream radio. nbtc__dv_250

In order to do this, the band knew they needed bombast. The first thing that hits the listener is the clarity of the album. Gone is the Southern goth murkiness of Fables. In its stead was as close to anathematic as R.E.M. was willing to go at that time. "Begin The Begin" opens up Pageant with some of the most forceful playing Peter Buck has ever played. In concert with Buck's playing was Michael Stipe's voice, no longer shielded under stream-of-conscious murmurs, Stipe's springwater clear vocals immediately ushered in a new era for the band.  

On the glorious side one, Stipe continues to create memorable choruses that soar, thanks again to Buck's playing and Bill Berry's percussion, most notably on "Cuyahoga" and "Fall On Me." On "Fall On Me," the chorus is so memorable that it finally broke through to the mainstream pop charts. Not to alienate longtime fans who may have been scared of the band doing too much to court the mainstream, the band inserted a quirky, abstract number ("Underneath The Bunker") that would have been a perfect fit for the weirder moments of Reckoning and Fables.

While side one supplies much of the sunnier side of R.E.M., the second side supplies much of the gothic elements so beloved by longtime fans. "The Flowers Of Guatemala" is a return to form for Stipe's stream-of-conscious writing, and "Swan Swan H" would have been an absolute chilling closer for Pageant. But the band adds one of the most "What the hell?!" additions on any album, but in the best way. The cover of The Clique's pop gem may have infuriated a few fans, but it was an absolute brilliant way to end the album. It showed a band that was still growing, but now armed with a significant amount of swagger, which would dominate much of Document.

Unless you're a major audiophile, you will not notice a major difference between the previous release of Pageant and the new version. The true treat of the anniversary release is the outtakes from the 1986 recording session at John Keane studios. Fans that criticize the album as being too polished will be drawn to the scrappier versions of songs like "Hyena" and "Cuyahoga."

While the album itself is an undeniable classic, the reissue sadly falls into the second tier of album reissues. These are the types of reissues that you are strongly urged to pick up if you don't already have the original album/CD. But the outtakes, despite their remarkably clear sound, don't quite merit a second purchase of an '80s classic. However, if you have not picked up this album, the reissue easily makes it the preferred choice if two versions of this album are staring at you at the record store.

Rating: B

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