For their fourth album, R.E.M., who previously bought their sonic murk in bulk, hired John Cougar Mellencamp’s producer. “It’s a great-sounding record, but I really hated [producer] Don Gehman at the time,” lead singer Michael Stipe said years later about being pushed to be less willfully obscure. “It was like throwing a baby into ice-cold water and leaving it there.”
If Lucite-clear sound wasn’t kind to some of Stipe’s lyrics — “I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract” might have been better mumbled, for example — it was a boon to most of them. The political message of “The Flowers of Guatemala” became available to anyone who took the time to listen, and the dense thicket of wordplay in “Begin the Begin” (the title itself was a pun on a Cole Porter song) was even better. Life’s Rich Pageant is the sound of R.E.M. stepping out of the corner into the spotlight, discovering that losing their indie-rock religion could make their music stronger.
Pageant was also the album on which bassist Mike Mills made his claim as one of the best backing vocalists in rock, with a plaintive tenor that blends perfectly with Stipe’s. For the first time on record, Mills took lead vocals on a song (a cover of the obscure pop gem “Superman,” originally by the Clique). Even better was his supporting role on “Fall on Me,” the finest song in the R.E.M. canon. A lullaby of modern anxiety, it’s flexible enough to serve as a potent metaphor for acid rain, nuclear warfare, satellite surveillance or any other modern phobia you choose. “Ask the sky, ask the sky/Don’t fall on me,” Stipe sings, his voice interlocking with Mills’. Whatever you fear most, the song says, it’s as inevitable as gravity, and the only solace available is the beauty of a melody.