R.E.M.'s fourth long-player in NME on 16 August, 1986--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
The only band that mutters, as an American commentator wittily described R.E.M., are back, and not before time, too. The past few years have seen scores of REMade, REModelled groups spawned across the length and breadth of North America; but most just hawking B-movie versions of staple R.E.M. styles and themes. The arrival of Lifes Rich Pageant (don't ask me where the apostrophe went) brings things back into focus again, and indicates a few more dry-rock riverbeds where water runs once more.
That's not as spurious an image as it first sounds, in this case. The centrepiece of Lifes Rich Pageant is 'Cuyahoga,' an observation on the river that runs through northern Ohio, linking its Indian past with soured pioneer ideals and a desire for rebirth and completeness: "Let's put our heads together/Let's start a new country up/Our father's tried/Erased the parts he didn't like/Let's try to fill it in."
This is as noble a sentiment as you'll get in modern American rock music, as far removed from the sensual excesses of the late '60s as it is from the nihilistic thrash wallowing of latterday hardcore. It's also as close as you'll get to a coherent statement of principle in Lifes Rich Pageant, the poet Stipe preferring instead a more ambiguous mode of expression for the most part. The usual pauses and punctuation are shifted out of sync to multiply the meanings in a manner close to stream-of-close-consciousness, as in 'I Believe,' where the music rolls over and over like John Stewart's 'Never Goin' Back' while Stipe offers up a disjointed serial flow of personal truths: "I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract explain the changes the difference between what you want and what you mean..."
In a way, Stipe's verse is the rock equivalent of religious writing. The only sane interpretation of the Bible, as with the Koran, the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, and similar texts, is as a series of moral fables, metaphors for life to be applied imaginatively to the individual's own experience. The reader-interpretative element is there in all R.E.M.'s songs, and the general drift, taken as a whole, deals in morality, the lessons of history, and Life And How To Live It (to nick a title from Reconstruction Of The Fables). When Stipe sings, in 'Fall On Me' "...tell the sky, don't fall on me", he's confronting the most basic, primitive religious fear of all.
Musically, it's a great leap forward from their earlier work, without dispensing with the essential R.E.M.-ness of things, the arpeggiated guitar lines, the holy harmonies, the hickory-smoked twang of Stipe's voice. Producer Don Gehman has instead accentuated the rocky edge of R.E.M., giving a satisfying Velvety crunch to the opening chords of 'Begin The Begin,' and beefing things up where necessary. Sometimes, as with 'Hyena,' this can mean a return to Reckoning territory, no bad thing at all.
Each side ends with an oddity: 'Underneath The Bunker' is their 'Third Man Theme,' the kind of Balkan folk hybrid one might expect from Texans Brave Combo, with Stipe's vocals submerged and breaking into yodels, as if you're hearing him on Wembley's PA system from a mile or two away. 'Superman,' which closes the LP after a long pause (deliberately setting it apart from the rest), is the group's first recorded covers version, which, like their own tunes, sounds like something you've known all your life but just can't place. Knowing Peter Buck's encyclopedic grasp of rock'n'roll history, it's probably some '60s garage-pop trash buffed up for the shiny '80s; whatever it is, it's quite enchanting, like the Monkees garlanded in layers of perfect harmonies. It could easily be a single with no shame attached at all.
The sticker on the shrink-wrap bears the deadpan legend 'Mammoth Huge Colossal Understated'. That ain't the half of it: Lifes Rich Pageant is one of 1986's benchmark albums, as single-minded and monumental, in its own way, as PiL's Album or Big Black's Atomizer.
It aspires to being nothing less than The American Book Of The Dead, and it comes damn close, at that.
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- Lifes Rich Pageant