For R.E.M., the underground ends here. Lifes Rich Pageant, the band's fourth LP, comes on with such full-throttle force that it's impossible to imagine AOR radio – if not Top Forty stations – failing to bring this group a broader audience. Moreover, Lifes Rich Pageant, as its partially ironic title suggests, is the most outward-looking record R.E.M. has made, a worthy companion to R.E.M.'s bracing live shows and its earned status as a do-it-yourself and do-it-your-way model for young American bands.
Thematically, Lifes Rich Pageant carries on the legacy of songs like the probing on-the-road rock-out "Little America" and the dark Southern folk artistry of last year's Fables of the Reconstruction. Suffused with a love of nature and a desire for man-kind's survival, the LP paints a swirling, impressionistic portrait of a country at the moral crossroads, at once imperiled by its own self-destructive impulses and poised for a hopeful new beginning.
"Let's put our heads together, and start a new country up," lead singer Michael Stipe suggests in the environmentalist anthem "Cuyahoga," and that invitation to action stands at the heart of Lifes Rich Pageant. "Silence means security silence means approval," Stipe declares over the churning Yardbirds Orientalism of Peter Buck's guitars in "Begin the Begin," the LP's powerhouse opening cut and a searing indictment of apathy. Stipe's insistence that we "begin again" sets the stage for the equally torrid rocker "These Days." Its chorus defines a statement of generational purpose: "We are young despite the years/We are concern/We are hope despite the times." Still another guitar raveup, "Hyena," makes nuclear posturing its target: "The only thing to fear is fearlessness/The bigger the weapon, the greater the fear."
Of course, despite the social vision that unifies the LP, anyone who comes to Lifes Rich Pageant expecting "Eve of Destruction" directness will be sorely disappointed. Lifes Rich Pageant may be more manifestly focused than R.E.M. has been in the past, but Stipe continues his seductive dance of veiled meanings in both his vocals and lyrics. "Cuyahoga," for example, derives its emotive effect as much from Stipe's sensuous love of singing that beautiful Indian word as from the song's concern over the poisoning of the Ohio river – separating the tune's "message" from the timbre of Stipe's resonant, raspy baritone is pointless. And the Velvet Underground-like "The Flowers of Guatemala," with its incantatory choruses and poetic cadences, illustrates that his powers of personal observation are undiminished by the album's public concerns.
Ever since the compelling obliqueness of "Radio Free Europe" first brought the band to national attention in 1981, R.E.M.'s impact has always depended much more on sound than sense. Buck's ringing guitars, the inspirational reach of Stipe's singing, Mike Mills's musical bass parts, Bill Berry's subtle, steady drums, the uplifting choruses that sweep the vocal harmonies into a rush of feeling – these all communicate "meaning" in an R.E.M. song, rendering the much-belabored "obscurity" of Stipe's lyrics irrelevant.
On Lifes Rich Pageant, producer Don Gehman has done an outstanding job of hardening R.E.M.'s sonic jolt. Without sacrificing the band's lushness and texture, Gehman has crafted a sound that subordinates musical details and coloring to the main instrumental thrust of each song. The distractions drat occasionally crept into Mitch Easter and Don Dixon's productions (the two LPs Murmur and Reckoning and the EP Chronic Town, which Easter produced solo), not to mention the ominous murkiness of Joe Boyd's work on Fables, art dispelled on this album. The most basic conventions of rock recording – clear, crisp, loud drums, for example – which R.E.M. had almost perversely avoided before (largely at Stipe's insistence), are observed. As a result, Lifes Rich Pageant has a contemporary feel, even as it sidesteps obvious modern electronics and indulges in such oldfangled touches as pianos, banjos, accordions and pump organs.
In its least successful tactic, R.E.M. attempts to leaven the seriousness of Lifes Rich Pageant – and counteract a widespread perception of the band as a bunch of precious psychedelic mystics – with humor. The album's (intentionally misspelled) title is taken from a remark by the Peter Sellers character Inspector Clouseau, to the effect that even the most absurd setbacks are part of "life's rich pageant" – a sentiment that became something like the band's motto. The album has a "dinner" and a "supper" side, and each side wraps with songs that are, if not throwaways, at best flip sides to singles.
The dinner-side closer is "Underneath the Bunker," a bit of spaghetti-western nonsense; it's merely a curiosity and of interest only to buffs. More winning is "Superman," which ends the supper side. An irresistibly cheesy psychedelic grunge rocker (originally recorded during the head-music heyday of the late Sixties by the Cliques), "Superman" gets an energetic treatment, with Mike Mills turning in a superb debut as lead vocalist.
But signing off both sides of an LP as rousing and raucous as Lifes Rich Pageant with self-consciously hip jokes is an unfortunate waste – an apparent effort to cling to insider status when every other aspect of the album is a lesson in how to assume the responsibilities of mass popularity without smoothing the subterranean edge. Two more top-flight R.E.M. songs might have made Lifes Rich Pageant a masterpiece – ranking with Remain in Light and Born in the U.S.A. as seminal American records of the Eighties. As it is, it's a brilliant and groundbreaking, if modestly flawed, effort by an immensely valuable band whose most profound work is still to come.