A dreary atmosphere surrounded R.E.M. during the recording of Fables of the Reconstruction. While a fine album in its own right, Fables also served as a breaking point for the band. Recording overseas in England with famed producer Joe Boyd may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but the consistent poor weather managed to work its way into the sessions. The music does not suffer, though it is considerably darker than the two albums and E.P. that preceded it. When any band suffers through these conditions, there is only one answer: John Cougar Mellencamp.
Or John Cougar. Or John Mellencamp. The point is, in 1986, for their next album, the band chose to record at Mellencamp’s recording studio in Indiana, a far cry from London, and much closer to their home base in Athens (Georgia, not Greece). In addition to the location, they worked for the first and only time with Mellencamp’s producer, Don Gehman, and created a politically-charged, much more upbeat record called Lifes Rich Pageant. The album is the second masterpiece from the band, and their last great album for the I.R.S. label (sorry Document fans). Though a few great albums would follow, this may be the band’s finest work (again, apologies Document fans).
Cut to this week: Thanks to modern technology, we have a welcome, less-balanced sound emanating from our speakers while listening to Lifes. Guitarist Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker has a bit more kick, and oftentimes bassist Mike Mills’s harmonies enter through the headphone marked “L” while lead singer Michael Stipe’s vocals pop through “R”. Bill Berry’s percussion is given an extra boost, as well. Some vocals get appropriately buried in the mix (“Underneath the Bunker”), while others are justifiably pushed to the forefront (“These Days”). Like the previous three deluxe edition R.E.M. records, there is a bonus disc, with material culled from demo sessions recorded by the band in Athens before heading west. Like the rest of the album, they make for essential listening.
The original album, though, sounds superb. Opener “Begin the Begin” still stirs up the emotion any great album or concert opener should, inviting the audience in to play. The guitar chords hang in the air during the verses, while Stipe’s vocals sound even more venomous than they did before. “These Days” now features a clearer harmony from Mills at the song’s conclusion, before fading into the background. The companion piece to “These Days” comes in the form of “I Believe”, perhaps the most inspiring music from the R.E.M. catalogue. The soaring chorus, and Buck’s guitar-picking elevate the track to a different level.
From a technical standpoint, “What If We Give It Away?” has a clearer guitar line before each Stipe lyric. The numerous instruments in the semi-instrumental “Underneath the Bunker” get a little more attention, from the Spanish guitar to the percussion. Each beat in “Flowers of Guatemala” lands at a different area in the mix, creating a fuller sound for an already gorgeous, acoustic-driven track. Closer “Superman”, a Clique cover song, sounds janglier than ever before. The Krypton-influenced track is the first on any R.E.M. record to feature Mills on lead vocals, and his contribution remains the perfect way to close out Lifes Rich Pageant.
As for the demos, they provide a fascinating insight into a band laying its thoughts down on tape. The results bear strong resemblances to the album, though the lyrics are sometimes different, placeholders, in a way. “Hyena”, which the band had been performing live during the Fables tour, bears the strongest resemblance to the eventual final product. But a song like “Fall on Me” features a different lyrical harmony from Mills, while his vocals are absent together in early versions of “Begin the Begin” and “Just a Touch”. The demo of “Cuyahoga” is just about the same for the first half, before Stipe’s vocals drop out completely, as though he hadn’t written lyrics for the rest of the song (he would go on to basically repeat each verse on the record). “Salsa (Underneath the Bunker)” and “Flowers of Guatemala” didn’t get lyrics until the band started recording in Indiana, heard here as instrumentals.
So, having demo versions of the studio album (sans their cover of “Superman”) is a great get, but we also get eight additional demos of songs from these sessions that weren’t fully realized until later on in the band’s career, if at all. “March Song” is a guitar-heavy instrumental that would morph into “King of Birds” for Document. The band plays around in the studio with the short, bass-led “Out of Tune”, and country-fied “Jazz (Rotary Ten)”, the latter of which received release on the unreleased-songs compilation, Dead Letter Office. “Two Steps Onward” is quite the slow burn before the chiming chorus, sounding more like an outtake from Reckoning than anything. Early versions of “All the Right Friends” and “Bad Day” are here in their infancy, as well.
Even without the bonus disc full of rare goodies, this remastered version of Lifes Rich Pageant is required listening. It manages to sound of its era, yet somehow seems timeless. Relocating back to the states did wonders for the band, and propelled them towards the dizzying heights of success that was just around the corner. Ain’t that America.