After the much-questioned production sound of Fables of the Reconstruction R.E.M. headed off in an altogether different direction for its follow-up Lifes Rich Pageant, opting to work with Don Gehman. Where Fables… producer Joe Boyd had worked with the likes of Nick Drake, Gehman was much more a rock guy, at the time working most regularly with John Mellencamp, and the album was recorded in Mellencamp’s Belmont Mall studios.
One of Gehman’s key decisions, and one that informs much of the overall tone of the album, was that it didn’t matter what Stipe was singing, but that he should be heard. On earlier albums his voice had been smothered, perhaps because of his natural self-consciousness, perhaps just as a way to cover for what might be seen as a lyrical emptiness. Gehman wasn’t afraid to pull back the curtain, with the result that perhaps for the first time in R.E.M.’s career, the music is propelled by the lead singer.
Around Stipe’s often ecology-leaning lyrics (Cuyahoga, Fall on Me et al), the band rocks freely, Peter Buck loosening up enough to pull out what practically counts as a solo during Flowers of Guatemala, and Mills, along with his customary melodic bass, chipping in with some lovely harmonies. From the opening barrage of Begin The Begin (no Feeling Gravity’s Pull obliqueness this time around!) to the cover of Superman that ends the album, there’s practically no let-up in the intensity, and sheer exuberance. Spread through the album are some of R.E.M’s finest moments: despite the furious pace of These Days, Just a Touch, and the eternal earworm that is I Believe, calmer cuts like Fall on Me - one of only two singles released from the album - with its beautiful vocal combinations, and the acoustic Swan Swan H thrive on their own power.
I’m never quite sure what the true and only answer is to the question “What is your favourite R.E.M. album?”, but if I recast it by thinking about which album I would pick if I could only ever listen to one album again for the rest of my days, then surely it would be Life’s Rich Pageant.