REM’s much-maligned exercise in glam rock, Monster, is the logical conclusion of the universally adored Lifes Rich Pageant, which has recently been reissued on its twenty-fifth birthday by IRS Records. This record would usher in REM’s artistically and commercially successful middle period, and it would put the band on the road toward the record that seemed to break the back of their fan base. Drawing a line between, say, “Superman” and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is not really that difficult; what’s harder to do, of course, is explain how the band moved from the majestic “Fall On Me” to the horrid “Star 69.” But hear me out: Lifes Rich Pageant opened up REM’s core sound enough that it showed them that they could expand and shrink their aesthetic at will to fit the needs of any song or any album or any audience. But by redefining the borders of their sound, REM were allowed to stray into Monster immediately after recording the most breathtaking album of their storied career, Automatic for the People. So, Lifes Rich Pageant is a transitional album that allowed REM to become everything that they became in the nine years from Document to New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
From the sly visual pun of the cover art (Buffalo Bill! Get it?) to the record’s overtly ecological concerns, Lifes Rich Pageant was perhaps REM’s most engaging album to date. Not to say, of course, that early masterpieces like Murmur and Reckoning are not engaging, it’s just that Lifes Rich Pageant opened REM enough that listening felt more like a discourse than a riddle. The clarity of Stipe’s vocals and lyrics were proving that the content of a song could be just as clear as the ringing instrumentation. From the peppy “I Believe” to the stately “Swan Swan H,” the wider variety in tempo and tone throughout the album gave it a larger dynamic range. While transitional albums usually exhibit a band’s growing pains, Lifes Rich Pageant simply demonstrates that REM could do practically anything they wanted to at this point in their career. They were no longer the lean, hungry band of Murmur and Reckoning; they were growing ever more confident of their talents and ever more plugged in with their diversifying audience. REM could start to afford to be everything to everyone.
This could certainly explain the wide variety in songwriting across Lifes Rich Pageant. On one of the spectrum is the pounding anthem “These Days” that recalls the nervous energy of Murmur, while funereal “Swan Swan H” is a richly detailed symbolic history that sits squarely at the other end of the continuum. In between these two poles, REM crafted an album full of a lot of instant classics: ”Fall on Me,” “Cuyahoga,” “Begin the Begin,” “I Believe.” Lifes Rich Pageant really has something for everyone. REM’s softer side is represented by the beguiling “Swan Swan H” and the stirring “The Flowers of Guatemala,” and the punkish flare of “These Days” and “Hyena” could satisfy devoted fans of their earliest work. And then there are the mid-tempo tracks that seem to refine the classic REM single: “Cuyahoga” and “Fall On Me.” These kinds of tracks would eventually become templates for nearly every single that REM issued with a new album. The ground in the short running time of the record is certainly impressive: only one song (“Cuyahoga”) runs beyond the four minute mark. But what’s ultimately more impressive is that the album still feels exciting and urgent twenty-five years on.
In a career seemingly filled with important moments, Lifes Rich Pageant truly does stand as a monumental transition point for REM. As soon as the perfect “Fall On Me” hit the airwaves, REM were firmly on a track toward enormous popularity, and this record defined the sound that they would ultimately bring to the masses in the late 80s and early 90s. And before their series of artistic stumbles in the last decade, the expansive sound of Lifes Rich Pageant served as a template record that allowed REM to appeal to an ever-widening audience and pushed the band to refine (and re-define) their singular aesthetic.
Rating: 8.5 / 10