Monday, June 13, 2011

Best of the 80's: Life's Rich Pageant by R.E.M.

Life's Rich PageantIt's a day of R.E.M. here in the HP, Idaho headquarters.  This 1986 release comes in at number 56 currently on the Best of the 80's list. 

I said before that Document was a leap into pop music for R.E.M., but Life's Rich Pageant was the beginning.  By bringing out Michael Stipe's vocals, subduing the guitar, and cranking up the rhythm section R.E.M. took their basic sound, but made it much more listener friendly.  Out of the four albums that make up their early sound Life's Rich Pageant stands out as unique as Murmur, but more importantly it showed that the band had potential to take their indie, alternative sound and make it more mainstream. 

There are a few throw away tracks like "Underneath the Bunker" and "Superman" but short of that there isn't a bad note on this album. 

Generally speaking the best R.E.M. album is either thought to be Murmur or Automatic for the People, but I think you could make a compelling argument for Life's Rich Pageant as it stands as a bridge from their earlier work to their later work and stands quite well on its own. 

I actually took a road trip once where I only had one tape in the truck, this particular album.  It never got old. 

Following the Rhapsody rating method I give it 4 out of 5 stars for Really Good.


  1. Some of the most fun two-and-a-half minuteses of my life were spent to R.E.M.'s "Superman."

  2. "Lifes Rich Pageant" was released on July 28, 1986. It was the first album released by R.E.M. after I met SmartMom, the first one I bought almost as soon as it came out, and the one I have listened to the most of any R.E.M. album. For years, almost every major road trip in my life -- and I took a lot of really long road trips between 1986 and 1993 -- started with my listening to "Begin the Begin" and "These Days." And there is still no better way to begin a road trip.

    I also think it is the most important album R.E.M. ever made. After "Fables of the Reconstruction," they had a very important choice to make. "Fables" is great, but it was just about as obscure and subdued as a rock album could be and still find a significant audience. If they had gone much further in that direction, they would have become a cult band, appreciated only by a very small number of very bitter people. On the other hand, if they tried to do an obvious pop-like album, they would lose all credibility as serious artists.

    To their eternal credit, they decided that they did not want to become a cult band. Instead, they dug down into the traditional music they loved so much, and found within it driving guitar sounds and drum beats that could be used to create popular music that would also be true to their roots. At the same time, their inclusion of songs like "Swan Swan H" showed that they were determined to keep the best of their slower work, and that they had real faith in Michael Stipe's singing. Over the next eight years, they would ride this balance of rock and lyricism all the way to the top of the entertainment world.

    Let me make a final comment about songs like "Superman" and "Underneath the Bunker." Matthew is right that they are throwaway songs, but I always thought they served an important purpose. I'm not sure that any group of people has ever appreciated irony more strongly than those of us who grew up in small American towns during the 1970s. Everything around us was so earnest, so serious, so solemn -- and often so incompetent and ridiculous -- that you couldn't help thinking how silly it all was. We worshiped people like Matt Groening and David Letterman who could help us laugh at it.

    Now this mood of playful irony is very heavy on this album -- as can be seen by the implication in the title that everything is all part of "Lifes Rich Pageant." By calling side one of the album the "Dinner Side" and side two the "Supper Side," and by ending each side with what was basically a novelty song ("Underneath the Bunker" and "Superman"), R.E.M. was telling us college kids that they, too, were willing to mock the conventions we had all grown up with. So while those songs are silly, they are actually important in creating the overall mood and feel of the album, and in presenting R.E.M. as someone who understood our view of the world.

  3. In my opinion, this album is required for anyone who wants to have a great record collection.

  4. By the way, I caught the first Tracy Polian couplet episodes of Family Ties late Sunday night. Man, it was so sweet to watch those, knowing that those two actually did meet on the set, actually have gotten married, actually have grown a family. It was really a joy. I read something great one time about the episode of I Love Lucy in which Lucille Ball's character reveals to Ricky Ricardo that she is pregnant in the middle of some song at his nightclub--about how rich that is because she and Desi Arnaz actually were about to have their first child. Anyway, same deal with these Family Ties episodes.

  5. Those episodes aired on September 26, 1985 and October 3, 1985 -- right at the beginning of sophomore year for both Alex Keaton and myself. (Alex Keaton and I are exactly the same age). A few months later, I met a freshman girl at Vanderbilt and we ended up getting married ourselves. So I am a big, big fan of those two episodes.