Life's Rich Pageant


I.R.S. Records, 1986

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


There is nothing more exciting than seeing and hearing a band which is on the brink of making it to the big-time. For R.E.M., that year was 1986.

Having built up a solid fan base through the college radio scene, Michael Stipe and crew had garnered a few minor hits by this time. While they would break through into the mainstream in a major way with their 1987 album Document, I find the previous release, Life's Rich Pageant, to be more exciting in many ways. The band pulls out all the stops and explores more musical genres than I think they ever would again on one album.

Stipe's voice still has the reluctant troubador style that you heard on their first full-length effort Murmur, though his vocals often do take a turn into the rock icon he was about to become, sounding stronger and less mumbled. An example of the transition of vocals is heard on the lovely "Fall On Me," still one of my favorite R.E.M. tracks of all time.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The folk-country of "Fall On Me" is just one of the genres R.E.M. explores here - besides rock and roll, of course, they dabble in a little Latin ("Underneath The Bunker") bluegrass (the opening riffs of "I Believe") and acoustic pop ("Swan Swan H"). Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry probably knew they were creating something special here, and wanted to let the creative juices flow.

While this album didn't generate any major hits - "Fall On Me" and "Superman" were quite popular among college and alternative radio - the sheer quality of all of the tracks is what sets it apart. Each track counts for something, and with one minor exception, not a moment is wasted. "I Believe" has gotten airplay in recent years, and is an amazing track that didn't get the attention it deserved at the time. The harmony vocals on this one is just incredible. A similar song, "Hyena," is one that grows on the listener and gets better with each listen.

R.E.M. seems to sound more at home when they're playing softer, more introspective music - possibly a reason they chose to do more of this since their switch to Warner Brothers in the late '80s. "Swan Swan H" is remarkable not just for what is played, but for what is not played - the band seems to know the musical limits of the song, and refuses to cross those boundaries. This is also why "Fall On Me" - and, to an extent, even "Superman" - have remained popular. The only near miss comes on "What If We Give It Away," a song which I think was steered in the wrong direction in the chorus.

So why isn't this album as popular as Document or anything they've recently put out? Sadly, I don't know - this is just as good as, if not better than, some of their blockbuster releases. (I think it blows the doors off of Automatic For The People and Green.) Unfortunately for R.E.M., since this was the last release prior to the "breakthrough," it was not noticed by the mainstream - only by those who had been drooling over every album R.E.M. released since their inception.

It's a shame to let such poetry and beauty go unnoticed - and it's a fate that Life's Rich Pageant is undeserving of.

Rating: A

User Rating: B+



© 1997 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of I.R.S. Records, and is used for informational purposes only.