Artistically and commercially, R.E.M.’s first nine albums can be pretty cleanly divided into three groups. Murmur (1983), Reckoning (1984) and Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) share a murky, mysterious quality and are firmly rooted in the alternative underground. Lifes Rich Pageant (1986), Document (1987) and Green (1988) showcase a more immediate sound, and perhaps unsurprisingly, these albums gained significant traction commercially. Green was recorded for Warner Bros., a major label, and R.E.M. toured extensively in support, not releasing a follow-up for three years. Out of Time (1991), Automatic for the People (1992) and Monster (1994) transformed the group into gigantic, globe-trotting superstars, however. Each album sold more than four million copies in the United States alone, but really, domestic sales were just the tip of R.E.M.’s massive iceberg of success.
They had established themselves as an enormous global act, and Warner Bros. responded by signing them to a gigantic new record deal worth $80 million. Strangely, this turned out to be one of the biggest busts ever — R.E.M. completely fell off the pop-culture map, never releasing another bona fide commercial hit and falling apart artistically after drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997. The band disbanded for good in 2011, leaving behind a towering legacy as the greatest alternative rock band ever, even if the second half of their career wasn’t exactly exemplary. Still, they were really, really great for the first ten years of their career. Three R.E.M. albums wound up on my 100 favorite albums list: Murmur (1983), Document (1987), and Automatic for the People (1992). All of them, obviously, are from that first decade.
There are three more from this period that I have been strongly considering for inclusion in the In Rotation column: Reckoning (1984), Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) and Out of Time (1991). As for the other three, I have barely listened to Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) and Green (1988), and haven’t listened to Monster (1994) — which is supposed to be ho-hum — at all. (I think I still need some more time with Reckoning and Out of Time, but I’ll end up selecting them eventually.) As for Lifes Rich Pageant, it has slowly emerged as another favorite of mine over the past year or so. It bursts with more energy than R.E.M.’s first three albums, which feel wrapped in a durable cocoon by comparison. Michael Stipe’s vocals are suddenly a lot more easy to understand, the guitars are noisy instead of jangly and atmospheric — the record just has a lot more punch.
Lifes Rich Pageant has the appropriate characteristics of a record by a band that had been slaving away in the underground; it was their bid to break from the cocoon. The break didn’t come with this record, but it did come with the next (Document), after which they made the jump to a major label to record Green. But there’s no underestimating how important Lifes Rich Pageant was in the band’s career arc, even the results aren’t directly applicable. We now live in a world where successes can happen overnight, but R.E.M. had to toil away for years taking baby steps towards mainstream success, carrying the entire alternative music movement on their back while they did it. Life’s Rich Pageant was a significant baby step, an album that wasn’t necessarily a game-changer as far as the genre is concerned, but within the context of the band’s career, it was huge.
It was the first R.E.M. album to have the immediacy required of a “mainstream” album, with sharp hooks and properly enunciated vocals. And the songs are fantastic. “Begin the Begin” is a classic opener, “Superman” is a dynamite closer, and everything in between is pretty much first-rate. Perhaps none of R.E.M.’s super-killer classic cuts (e.g., “Losing My Religion,” “Radio Free Europe”) are here, but certainly songs like the rocker “Just a Touch” and the gorgeous ballad “Swan Swan H” rank near the top of their catalog.