Thursday, May 28, 2020

Album Reviews # 76 R.E.M. - Lifes Rich Pageant

First loves are the strangest things. You never quite shake them off, try as you might. Musically, R.E.M. were very much my first love. There were dalliances beforehand. Like girls whose eyes you meet across the classroom and flutter your eyelashes at but take things no further.

But R.E.M. were the real thing. With R.E.M. and myself we consumated things, if that's not too much information. They felt like a personal discovery, a complete revelation when I first bought and utterly immersed myself in Murmur when it came out in 1983. The thunderbolt as they say in The Godfather. They soundtracked the important years between 18 and 21 for me and I've never ever quite got over what they meant to me, not even now. I probably never will. They're in my DNA. I could easily write a book about my enduring relationship with them, probably entitled R.E.M & I. Trust me, it wouldn't be as bad as it sounds.

They left me, I didn't leave them. In retrospect, they left me between the making of Fables of The Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant,  between 1985 and 1986, curiously just as I was embarking on my first real and really important love affair. I didn't notice it at the time, I still continued to buy their records on the day of release, listen to them on repeat, avidly follow everything they did, said and was written about them in the music press. Up until 1996 really. That band had a remarkable run. But from 1986 the relationship was not quite so special, we didn't walk quite so hand in hand. And as I said, it was R.E.M's eyes that wandered, not mine.

It was inevitable really. They were never a band for standing still. At this point they were ready for wider horizons, bigger venues, higher chart positions. You can hear it with even a cursory listen to Lifes Rich Pageant. They're a finely honed Rock machine.Years of relentless touring had led to them more than paying their dues and they were ready and fully deserving of payback. Pageant sees them beginning to haul in their chips, to count their winnings. No one could possibly resent them that moment.

Not that there's much wrong with the record. It's a very good but not great album. If I made a list, it would probably be my fifth favourite album of their's. Behind the first three magnificent statements of intent, Murmur, Reckoning and Fables and their mid-career masterpiece Automatic For The People. It has some of their very finest moments, as a band they're clearly flying and the production, from Don Gehman, gives them a clarity, immediacy and approachability they'd never managed before.

So what's my beef with the record? Like I said it has some of their very greatest songs. The first four on Side One; Begin The Begin, These Days, Fall On Me and Cuyahoga. the first two on Side Two: Flowers Of Guatemala,and I Believe. Swan Swan H. Underneath The Bunker and Superman.Two likeable curios, but nothing more than that. And well, that's it really.

What in my book prevents Pageant from being the masterpiece it could so easily have been, are the three remaining tracks. Hyena, What If We Give It Away and Just a Touch. They're old songs, in the case of the latter two, several years old. All three must have been considered and deemed not up to scratch for inclusion on previous albums. Frankly they're still not up to scratch, state of the art production and new-found clarity notwithstanding. They're not fit company for the truly first rate new songs they're sharing record space with here. A rare misstep for a band that had made very few up to then for me. A rare look backwards when they should have kept forging forwards.

This doesn't stop the fine moments on this records from being very, very fine ones indeed. For much of the album the band are flying, almost literally. Most importantly, you can hear Michael Stipe clearly here, for the first time really, you can hear his lyrics, there's no restraint in the delivery, he sounds devishly confident, as frankly do the rest of the band.

This is the moment that it's clear that R.E.M. are ready to embrace their fate, to become bigger and in some ways better, (perhaps better in marketplace ways  as much as aesthetic and artistic ways), and for one strange but definite moment a few years down the line, the actual biggest and best band in the world. For a band which came from where they came from it was a remarkable achievement indeed. Particularly as they continued to maintain the strange, murky, and yes enigmatic quality which had marked them out as special in the first place.

So Pageant is no sell-out. The band never did that really although you could pick out certain songs later on when they blotted their copybook and risked their credibility to a perilous degree. But it was the beginning of the necessary compromise that they needed to make in order to make the break from the essentially cult concern they had been and become something else.

I don't resent them for it. I continued to love them. I always will. They'd provided the soundtrack to my youth after all and continued to do so, well into my adulthood. They're a quite magnificent band. Lifes Rich Pageant is a wonderful record. It's just not quite, not quite the record it might have been. Nevertheless, I recommend it, almost wholeheartedly.

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