Life’s Rich Pageant
[Rating: 4 stars]
When Life’s Rich Pageant hit the airwaves in 1986, no one – not even the bandmates themselves – could have predicted the mainstream success that awaited R.E.M. later that decade. Document, with its polished production and blockbuster radio singles, was only 13 months away. At the time, though, Life’s Rich Pageant was the most conventional thing R.E.M. had ever done, with linear lyrics that finally cut through the band’s dense, melodic jangle and contemporary-sounding rock songs that pointed the way toward heavy FM airplay.
Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Life’s Rich Pageant sounds just as timeless as ever, representing the precise moment where R.E.M. began to grow past its popularity on college radio with new material that had just as much appeal off-campus. “Fall On Me” now reads like a precursor to the band’s mid-tempo hits, from “Losing My Religion” to “Man On The Moon,” and “Cuyahoga” brings up environmental concerns that remain unresolved, proof that Michael Stipe’s ecological screeds were anything but superfluous. Originally released one year after Fables Of The Reconstruction, it feels like that album’s cooler younger brother, boasting the intellectual bent of Fables without the moody, muddy baggage that came with it.
Fables Of The Reconstruction was reissued last year. Modeling itself after that version, the deluxe edition of Life’s Rich Pageant comes with all the usual souped-up trappings, from remastered songs to a bonus disc of demo tracks. Recorded at John Keane’s studio in March 1986, the so-called Athens Demos are the real meat of this double-album package, avoiding most of the material that appeared on the European I.R.S. Vintage Years reissue in 1993 and focusing on primitive, unrehearsed versions of Pageant’s tracks.
“Underneath The Bunker” is stripped of its barely intelligible lyrics and presented here as “Salsa,” while Document’s “King of Birds” is re-titled “March Song” and performed as an instrumental. “Bad Day,” which became a minor hit after its official release in 2003, is strikingly similar to the version that appeared years later, although it adds an out-of-tune harmonica to the mix. “Wait,” one of the album’s only unreleased tracks, pays tribute to the band’s pop influences with a slaphappy guitar intro.
Even the most cursory R.E.M. fan can appreciate Pageant’s strongest tracks, but most of the demos are aimed at serious R.E.M. fanatics only. Recorded live, they’re full of missed notes and flubbed lyrics, like the version of “Fall On Me” where Michael Stipe stumbles from verse to verse like the town drunk. He fares even worse on “I Believe,” humming the melody or choosing nonsense syllables whenever words fail him.
There’s a shambling charm to even the most bumbling performances, though, and it’s fascinating to hear the songs take shape. This is the sound of a band learning to embrace its potential, awkwardness and all.