Given that it’s taken me the best part of 20 years to figure out what my favourite R.E.M. album is, this might explain why I could spend most of forever trying to put together anything like a definitive list of my all-time favourites. And another thing: given the relative newness of most of my picks this month, I wonder what a similar list would have looked like ten years ago, or would like in another ten year’s time.
R.E.M. are one of very few bands that have survived from the early days of my expeditions into indie, alt-anything, americana, electronica, etc. I’ve loved them since Out of Time and they’ve rarely let me down (Monster and Around the Sun being the only real duds). I could have picked almost any of their albums for my favourite; in the end the only way I could decide was to ask myself - if I was able to listen to one and only one R.E.M. album for the rest of my life which would I pick?
Murmur, Reckoning, Automatic for the People, New Adventures in Hi-Fi were all in the running, but it’s Lifes Rich Pageant that I’d miss the most. I’m sure of that. Produced by Don Gehman, who used his experience in working with artists like John Mellencamp, it has a raw edge and directness that was missing from their other early albums. Gehman deconstructed the band, encouraging them to push themselves as individuals as well as a collective force, then pushed Stipe’s vocals to the fore, making them clearer and more a part of the sound than they had been before, and allowing the largely ecologically-minded lyrics to flower. Peter Buck responded by opening up into what practically counts as a rare solo on Flowers of Guatemala.
The lyrics are passionate, the performances energetic - These Days, I Believe, Just a Touch in particular almost run away with themselves - the overall mood one of barely controlled exuberance. But when it’s not bouncing up and down like an excitable child trying to get your attention, it’s prepared to just quietly bring matters of importance to your attention; it implores rather than proselytizes. We are by now familiar with Stipe’s political and ecological colours, as we are too with R.E.M. as a unit. Back then? Maybe not so much. Ideas and thoughts, Fables of the Reconstruction, it would not have been difficult to put two and two together, but on Lifes Rich Pageant, maybe for the first time we get a hint of the message being delivered with confidence.