Saturday, September 5, 2009

Top Ten Albums #8 - Lifes Rich Pageant by REM

Year released: 1986


Begin the Begin - These Days - Fall on Me - Cuyahoga - Hyena - Underneath the Bunker - The Flowers of Guatemala - I Believe - What If We Give It Away? - Just a Touch - Swan Swan H - Superman

The soundtrack to my high school years ran on 1/8th inch tape between two plastic reels inside a small plastic box, about the size of most cell phones today. CDs were still a thing of the future. We never imagined anything more advanced or possessing greater fidelity than the humble cassette tape. It wasn't that we wouldn't have wanted more, if we'd known it was possible - we just didn't know. We accepted tape's limitations as state-of-the-art.

Sometimes I heard tapes on a Sony Walkman, sometimes on a boombox, sometimes on a rattling, echoey car stereo with all kinds of exposed wiring and an add-on equalizer that did something, although I had no real idea what.

One day I happened across REM's "I Believe" on one of those cassettes, and my brain immediately said, "What's that?" It was one of those inner connections that gets made with an almost audible click in your head. Something about the song took me away to somewhere I'd never been. I believe in these types of profound yet spur-of-the-moment connections, just like Michael Stipe believes in "coyotes, and time as an abstract" (if that's really what he's saying) in the song.

It wasn't just the words or Stipe's delivery on that song that hooked me, it was the loping jangle of the rhythm and how it all worked together - a shambling but beautiful little handmade engine of a song that carried the flavor of the underground, a hint of a life off the beaten path.

I took a roundabout path to discovering more about REM - that must have been '87 or so, and my Pink Floyd mania was at its peak. I went back to Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, over and over and over, and REM fell by the wayside for awhile -- but I filed away that first taste for later examination. I didn't forget.

Just as my full appreciation of them took awhile, REM's career had a very slow burn. They stayed on independent I.R.S. Records (still the coolest logo ever) for their first five discs, and their commercial peak didn't come until after their sixth album. And although they have tons of great songs on either side of Lifes Rich Pageant, what thrills me so much about this particular work is how it captures the sound of an original band in transition, already accomplished but still reaching for something, confident but not yet complacent.

Stipe's vocals on this album are closer to the front than on previous records, far less cloaked and secretive, but still just as difficult to penetrate, just as wryly inscrutable right off the bat -- "A birdie in the hand / of life's rich demand / the insurgency began, and you missed it," is Stipe's gruff tee shot for "Begin the Begin," which isn't just the record's first track, it's one of the best. Throughout the album, the lyrics sport references to insurgency and colonialism and South American nations and bunkers and entities--corporations, presumably--that "buy the sky and sell the sky" ("Fall on Me"), hand-in-hand with other complex ideas, but the exact meaning of Stipe's lines and couplets is rarely ever completely clear, giving these songs and the record as a whole a beautiful, enduring extra life.

Flavored with nods to pop and guitar rock and world beat and bluegrass, the music is from everywhere and nowhere, a new point on the American musical map fixed by Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry. The last time I encountered someone who scoffed at REM's influence, I nearly fell out of my chair in disbelief - this was the band that launched a thousand others, that suggested new possibilities, that basically created what became known as alternative rock.

Life's Rich Pageant captured them at the height of their powers but still looking up. That's why it's a great record, a lasting statement--of both power and potential--by one of the truly great, original American bands.

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