A transitional album; Rolling Stone’s Anthony Decurtis: “For R.E.M., the underground ends here.” There seems to be more “thrust” (to borrow from Decurtis’ review again) within each song here, as opposed to the muddier production of the preceding Fables of the Reconstruction, Peter Buck rocks more than he jangles and Michael Stipe’s vocals and poetry are a single iota away from his stadium rock pretensions of Document-onwards.
But the term “transitional album” carries a negative weight, as if to say that the band is only in the middle of something; that they’re neither here nor there; that they have done better or will do better. To clarify, they have done better (on Murmur and on Reckoning), but they won’t ever do better. In other words, this is their third best album. After this, Michael Stipe revealed himself to be an utterly boring persona without the grandiosity that Bono habitats; Peter Buck revealed himself to not know any chords besides D, A, G and Em and not know any tricks besides arpeggiating between them; Bill Berry did a brain scan that revealed an aneurysm and called it quits. Truthfully, Mike Mills is the only one that remained constant with his melodic fills and backing vocals elevating songs as best they could throughout R.E.M.’s 30-year long discography.
To be honest, the second side could be dead weight and Lifes Rich Pageant would still be a great album by virtue of the opening block of five songs alone (“Underneath the Bunker” is nothing more than a palette cleanser). The details: Peter Buck’s chug throughout “Begin the Begin,” and especially in the song’s final fifteen seconds, with the album’s catchiest riff dispersed throughout to give us breathing room; the choruses of “These Days,” meaningful, melodic and harmonic (“We are young despite the years, we are concern / We are hope, despite the times”); how Michael Stipe loses his lexicon in the fever of the music, growling his way through the bridge; the choruses of the environmentally-minded “Cuyahoga,” melodic and harmonic, and the verses of the song, meaningful; how Bill Berry elevates “Hyena” in such a way that it makes complete sense that the first R.E.M. album cover to feature a person features only him despite the band being one of the most democratic the world has ever seen.
But the best song of the bunch is “Fall On Me,” which I’d describe as meaningful, melodic and harmonic if I hadn’t already used all three of those words in the previous paragraph twice each, but that’s really what they are. The choruses are classic R.E.M., with Michael Stipe providing a great hook and Mike Mills weaving his way around them; Stipe really outdoes himself here, taking a huge chance with the melodic climb in the second verse (0:58 – 1:02) or holding the second chorus’ final word for as long as he can while Mike Mills enters to take lead during the bridge.
Is the second side dead weight? No, though there does exist a dropoff in quality practically commemorated in the band dubbing it the “Supper Side” (as in, a lighter meal than dinner): there’s nothing noteworthy about “Just a Touch” other than the piano and organ (presumably by Mike Mills who normally plays keys, though the credits don’t say) while “Swan Swan H” foreshadows R.E.M.’s later work, where the rest of the band are background fodder to Michael Stipe. But “The Flowers of Guatemala” is the album’s prettiest song (Decurtis describes it as “The Velvet Underground-like,” and I presume he means the Velvet Underground of 1969) and “What If We Give It Away?” works up a killer bass line punctuated by Peter Buck.
And of course, there’s “Superman.” R.E.M. is a band that’s always worn their influences on their sleeves, and a band that’s always covered the bands who influenced them. But the ironic thing is, their covers have always been subpar: Wire’s “Strange” losing its strangeness; Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” losings its cartoonish-ness; the Velvet Underground’s “There She Goes Again” losing its heft, etc. (I haven’t heard Dead Letter Office yet, but I have heard enough bad things about it that seems like more fuel to the fire.) Not only is R.E.M.’s cover of “Superman” a good song, but it’s a great one; their best closer and vastly improving on the original. Really love Mike Mills’ confident vocals (as opposed to his diffident lead on the bridge of “Fall on Me”). Blast it loud to catch the details, like the background “Hey”’s or the buried keyboard blipping throughout.
I’ve read criticisms that suggest that “Superman” invalidates the serious tone of the political strife of the preceding tracks; nonsense. Lifes Rich Pageant has a claim for one of the best-sequenced R.E.M. albums, and “Superman”’s “I am Superman, and I can do anything” was one of the most hopeful mantras R.E.M. ever laid to tape; that they might have been able to rally the people to save them from the times, the environment and the government. It’s telling that they never made a song like “Superman” again, let alone closed an album with something like it (until maybe Accelerate’s apocalyptic “I’m Gonna DJ”); like they kept looking around to see that with the Bush Administration replacing Ronald Reagan, nothing had changed at all.