If R.E.M.’s third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, was an insular, heady record steeped in the folklore and archetypes of the American South, its follow-up, Life’s Rich Pageant, represented the band’s first foray into broad accessibility. That isn’t to say the album lacks Michael Stipe’s convoluted, rambling stream-of-consciousness lyrics or that R.E.M. had suddenly turned into the MOR act they would devolve into during the early aughts. But it’s the first of the band’s albums to showcase a couple of pop crossover singles, and it represents the beginning of Stipe’s maturation into a true rock frontman and R.E.M.’s most explicitly political period. To that end, Life’s Rich Pageant is the record that truly laid the groundwork for R.E.M. to become one of the biggest rock acts in the world.
Albums are most often described as “transitional” when critics can’t think of a more diplomatic way to say that the effort lacks direction or that its stylistic departures don’t work; such albums usually mark the start of an act’s rapid descent into irrelevance. But Life’s Rich Pageant, in its exquisitely remastered 25th Anniversary Edition, stands both as a powerful album on its own merits and as a nearly seamless transition piece between R.E.M.’s formative period and their commercial dominance. The ragged, frenetic energy of R.E.M.’s early work is captured on aggressive tracks like “Just a Touch” and “These Days,” while “Fall on Me” and their cover of the Clique’s “Superman” showcase a newfound emphasis on massive pop hooks.
Few acts have struck that balance as well as R.E.M. do here, and in a lot of ways, Life’s Rich Pageant is a template for how the “alternative” music the band was largely responsible for originating would, less than a decade later, become the dominant narrative in the music industry. A song like “Fall on Me,” which is a prescient treatise on the destruction of the Earth’s environment, should have been a hard sell back in 1986—at least compared to, say, singles from Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. But R.E.M. gave the song an enormous, sing-along chorus with a simple but powerful hook: “Buy the sky/And sell the sky/And ask the sky/And tell the sky/Don’t fall on me.” Though they would have bigger hits later in their career, “Fall on Me” might just be R.E.M.’s most perfectly constructed pop song.
The remastered version of the album emphasizes how tight R.E.M.’s song construction and arrangements had become after just four albums. With Bill Berry’s thundering percussion lines and Peter Buck’s trademark jangly lead guitars, “Hyena” is a standout for how R.E.M. and producer Don Gehman, best known at the time for his work with John Mellencamp, foreground the rhythm track. Because the sound of the record is so streamlined, the song’s political allegory, which draws a clever parallel between geopolitical maneuvering and the food chain, comes through clearly. While Stipe still throws in a few inscrutable asides (“The Flowers of Guatemala” is allegedly inspired by the burial of political dissidents in mass graves in the titular country, but God only knows how anyone is supposed to get that from the actual lyrics), the fact that his increasingly confident vocal performances and more clear-headed songwriting are the focus of Life’s Rich Pageant makes the album far more accessible than its predecessors.
Twenty-five years on, the optimism of “Cuyahoga” is still inspiring and relevant. Its message (“Let’s put our heads together/And start a new country up”) reflects an intelligent and decidedly nonpartisan approach to political reconstruction without resorting to the didacticism that would infiltrate some of Stipe’s later writings. The call to arms of opener “Begin the Begin” looks to goad the band’s predominantly college-aged audience to join them as political activists, while the wiseass “These Days” and “Just a Touch” (which concludes with Stipe exuberantly shouting, “I’m so goddamn young!”) temper that urgency with some important self-awareness.
The refinement of the songs on Life’s Rich Pageant are highlighted by the reissue’s second disc, which includes rough demo versions of the 12 songs that would eventually form the album, plus a selection of songs that would turn up on later records. Valuable as a document of the band’s creative process, the demos reveal both R.E.M.’s strong editorial instincts and Gehman’s instrumental role in guiding the band toward what would eventually become the signature sound of their commercial peak. Life’s Rich Pageant serves as both a guidepost for how R.E.M. moved in an arena-sized direction and as another extraordinary album in the band’s uninterrupted run of true greatness that spanned between Murmur and Automatic for the People.