Lifes Rich Pageant remains a key milestone in R.E.M.'s extensive back catalogue. This was after all the moment that inaudible lyrics and murky soundscapes gave way to big guitar riffs and even bigger drums. Outgrowing the confines of their niche college rock appeal; Buck, Berry, Mills and Stipe were faced with creating a different type of record. The new deluxe box of the bands 4th studio effort celebrates the leap forward that they took towards international success.
The irony is that at its heart Lifes Rich Pageant is actually a classic protest record. Within the first verse of opener 'Begin the Begin' Michael Stipe sets out his argument; 'Life's rich demand creates supply in the hand, of the powers, the only vote that matters.' Despite the warnings against corporate America and the ecological overtones of 'Fall On Me' and 'Cuyahoga', R.E.M. were, perhaps inadvertently, plotting a collision course with massive commercial success. The gamble of Lifes Rich Pageant paved the way for Document and subsequently a deal with Warner Brothers that saw their first major label release in 1988.
With the historical significance of their 1986 album, it's no surprise to see this repackaged version emerge following the re-release of their earlier back catalogue. But to give credit where it's due, this version of Lifes Rich Pageant tells the entire story of the bands transition under the watchful eye of producer Don Gehman. The remastering here is outstanding with instruments making themselves known for what seems like the first time. A prime example is the organ hidden in the mix of 'Just A Touch'; which suddenly emerges beneath the shiny guitars and frenetic piano.
Perhaps the biggest benefactor of this cleaned up mix is Bill Berry (he is after all the only face visible on the album cover). His drumming provides the staple for the new rock sound that the band was developing. Gone are the delicate and folky refrains of previous albums, Berry revels in the opportunity to use big drum sounds to propel the material forward. For the most part the remastering reveals a clearer and louder representation of his contribution.
'Swan Swan H' sounds less fragile, 'These Days' more urgent, and 'Superman' less of an afterthought. Ultimately this reissue underlines the work of Gehman, a producer who understood how to strip the band of their inhibitions and put Stipe's vocals at the front of the mix rather than burying them as the singer would have preferred.
The second disc of Athens Demos meanwhile, reveals a significant amount about the song writing process that took place. Despite incomplete lyrics and the big sound of the finished songs being absent, these sessions reveal a goldmine of material. Three of the songs ('King Of Birds', 'Bad Day' and 'All The Right Friends') were subsequently recorded for later albums, while the material that actually appears on Lifes Rich Pageant has the urgency of a band eager to extend their musical palette. Stipe's 'la, la, la' at the end of 'I Believe' and the abandoned instrumental experiments also suggest that the band members were having fun while in the studio. The sole new track here 'Wait' contains Ramones style rhythm and is a forgotten gem that could fit onto any of the bands more guitar driven records quite easily.
Overall then, Lifes Rich Pageant deserves this deluxe box set treatment that has been lavished upon it. New liner notes, a poster and art cards round off an impressive package. The remastered album says something new not only about what R.E.M. were capable of in 1986, but also about what they could achieve in the future if they took another step as bold as this with their next record.