This album was the band’s fourth, and the first to move into more rock territory after the murky alternative pop of their first three releases. I slotted this album as #3 on my list of R.E.M. releases when I ranked them back in 2008.
Eleven years ago, I ranked R.E.M.’s albums and placed 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant at #3. I have some quibbles about that list and would likely shuffle some titles were I to revisit it today, but I stand by the placement of this album.
Pageant was the album where R.E.M. started the transition from the alternative to the mainstream. It’s more polished and muscular than its predecessors, but not as radio-friendly as what was to come. It sits nicely in that sweet spot.
Lifes Rich Pageant – R.E.M. (1986)
Given the spotty output of R.E.M. over the past 15 years, it’s easy to forget what a force they were in the 80s and early 90s. But no band better defined the alternative movement — and particularly how musical integrity could lead to mainstream success.
Five R.E.M. albums had a shot at this list, with three in the running right up until I finalized things. In the end, two made the cut. And first up is Lifes Rich Pageant.
More than any other performer on this list, Michael Stipe uses his voice as an instrument. The sound of his singing is as important an element of R.E.M.’s sound as Peter Buck’s guitars, Mike Mills’ bass and keyboards and Bill Berry’s drums.
Driving that point home is that fact that on R.E.M.’s early albums, you can hardly tell what the hell Stipe is singing but everything still works perfectly. His mumbles (and murmurs) convey the emotional message of those songs as well as any lyrics could.
In doing these theme weeks (including the Bob Dylan Weekends) I’m frequently surprised by how prolific these artists were in their early years. It’s pretty much the norm to see albums released every year, sometimes two per year, for the first decade or so of these storied careers.
And then at some point a weariness must set in, or perhaps it’s a comfort level that comes with a certain degree of fame. And the albums slow down to one every three or four years, if that. Does the creative energy dissipate? Do record labels start pressuring established artists to build up anticipation between releases? Or is it something else?