Review of R.E.M.’s groundbreaking fourth album that introduced us to their arena-rock future
By Carter Bagley
By 1986 R.E.M. were at the top of their game in both skill, experience, and knowledge of the business. They were ready to take their exclusive, fresh, and unique sound to a whole new level and with their fourth studio album “Life’s Rich Pageant” that’s exactly what they did. Breaking away from the darker southern tone of their previous effort and developing their style they used on “Murmur” and “Reckoning” into a strong, explosive, and catchy rock record. It stars off with another fantastic opener like their other albums with the aptly titled “Begin The Begin”. The lyrics have the same mysterious tone to them that songs in “Murmur” excelled at and it has these sort of southern surf rock guitar riffs throughout the song. Michael Stipe vocals are confident and catchy through this song and almost the entirety of the album. The album then continues with a fantastic four song streak in the songs “These Days”, “Fall On Me”, “Cuyahoga”, and “Hyena”. Track 2 is one of my favorites on the record and contains some really catchy lyrics and pop hooks. The same style is given to track 3 “Fall On Me” which for me is the standout highlight on the record. Fantastic lyricism and an extremely catchy vocal performance by Stipe which led to the song getting some airplay on MTV which was big for the band and it even accompanied a video shot by Michael Stipe himself. This is a song that’s endlessly fun and cheery and after one listen you find yourself returning to it time and time again. “Cuyahoga” is another song where the lyrics make you feel something and you can’t quite pinpoint why because they don’t seem to make complete sense. Either way it balances perfectly between soft and sweetly sung verses and suceeded by an explosive fun nonsensical chorus that includes pretty much one word online. “Hyena” is another fantastic track though it kinda pales compared to the three that proceeded it, although it’s still a very enjoyable song with particularly great instrumentation. The album inevitably takes a mid-album dip however as the surf rock influenced “Underneath The Bunker” lacks the greatness of beginning of the record but it still contains some smooth catchy guitar riffs and is no doubt still interesting. It’s short though and so it doesn’t over stay it’s welcome. The next song “The Flowers Of Guatemala” is an underrated gem mixed in the tracklist despite not reaching the levels of quality that Side 1 reached. The album definitely picks up with next two expertly written songs “I Believe” and “What If We Give It Away?” The former is very catchy and starts off with very southern banjo but transitions into the recognizable 80’s pop rock sound the band was perfect at. The lyrics are reflective and relatable in a bizarre way and it all leads up to the amazing chorus that proves this album has definitely not lost steam. “What If We Give It Away?” is less poppy but gains your attention by being a break in tone that the rest of the album has by opting out for the band’s traditional explosive chorus and instead goes for a softer, nicer one that suits the lyrics of the song better. “Just A Touch” returns to the very marketable fun vibe of most of their songs but doesn’t do it nearly as good as others on this record but I’d say it still demands a listen as it’s a good song for this part of the album. The final two tracks are where the album really shows different sounds from the band. “Swan Swan H” contains some heartwrenching lyrics and soft yet aggressive acoustic guitar that’s very reminiscent of R.E.M.’s later albums like “Out Of Time” and “Automatic For The People”. It’s for sure a standout song just on it’s originality and raw human emotion poured into it largely due to Stipe’s believable vocal performance. The album closer and R.E.M. classic “Superman” is actually a cover of a late 60’s song by The Clique. R.E.M. definitely made it their own incorporating their personal unique instrumentation and vocals to it. What comes out is a classic 80’s song that sounds very Beatles-esque but exclusively R.E.M. at the same time, and I must say it works incredibly. “Life’s Rich Pageant” is no doubt a standout in the bands massive and impressive discography with some great innovative instrumentation, vocals, and lyrics that carries their 4th album to classic status.
Highlights: These Days, Fall On Me, Cuyahoga, I Believe, What If We Give It Away?, Swan Swan H, and Superman
Lowlights Lesser Highlights: Underneath The Bunker, Just A Touch