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Music / Lifes Rich Pageant

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"Let's put our heads together and start a new country up."
Lifes Rich Pageant, released in 1986 through I.R.S. Records, is the fourth studio album by American Alternative Rock band R.E.M.. Following the Troubled Production of and initial Creator Backlash towards Fables of the Reconstruction the previous year, the band sought another shakeup of their sound and style, returning to production in the United States with the aid of Don Gehman, known for his work with John Mellencamp and, later, for producing Hootie & the Blowfish's first three albums.

Contrary to Hootie's relatively safe and mellow sound, however, Gehman moved R.E.M. into a more Hard Rock influenced direction, leading them out of the opaque style of their first three albums and into a path more in-line with changing critical and audience attitudes towards alternative rock (which was beginning to favor more abrasive sounds as "authentic"). Fitting this change, not only did Michael Stipe trade out his murky, mumbling vocals for a more passionate and enunciated delivery style, he also focused more on themes of social activism and protest in his lyrics, influenced by his relationship with 10,000 Maniacs frontwoman Natalie Merchant (who had previously convinced him to write about the Native American genocide on Fables track "Green Grow the Rushes").

Lifes Rich Pageant marked a commercial turning point for the band as well, peaking at No. 21 on the Billboard 200— their highest US chart placement up to that point— and staying on the charts for 32 weeks straight. Lead single "Fall on Me" would also be the first to crack the top ten on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks chat, peaking at No. 5 (though it just barely made the mainline Hot 100 at No. 94), and the album itself would be R.E.M.'s first to receive RIAA certification, reaching gold status at the start of 1987; it would additionally be certified platinum in Canada later that year.

Despite this, Lifes Rich Pageant was still supported by two singles: "Fall on Me" and a Cover Version of "Superman".


Dinner Side
  1. "Begin the Begin" (3:28)
  2. "These Days" (3:24)
  3. "Fall on Me" (2:50)
  4. "Cuyahoga" (4:19)
  5. "Hyena" (2:50)
  6. "Underneath the Bunker" (1:25)

Supper Side

  1. "The Flowers of Guatemala" (3:55)
  2. "I Believe" (3:49)
  3. "What If We Gave It Away?" (3:33)
  4. "Just a Touch" (3:00)
  5. "Swan Swan H" (2:42)
  6. "Superman"note  (2:52)

Kevin troped it on the radio:

  • Accomplice by Inaction: "Begin the Begin" applies this trope to a political context with the lines "silence means security, silence means approval," contrasting this with the other lyrics that advocate political activism.
  • Album Title Drop: "Begin the Begin" comes very close to doing so, mentioning "life's rich demands." No pageants, though.
  • Alliterative Title: "Begin the Begin", "Swan Swan H"
  • Animal Motifs: "Hyena", naturally, to the point where it opens with a synthesized hyena laugh. Similarly, "Swan Swan H" revolves around bird and cat imagery.
  • Anti-Love Song: "Superman", which uses the title character as a metaphor for romantic obsession and jealousy.
  • Big Ol' Eyebrows: Bill Berry's are featured on the album cover.
  • Book Ends: The album opens and (almost) closes with references to anti-black oppression: the opening track, "Begin the Begin", makes an ironic reference to The Story of Little Black Sambo, notorious for its anti-black imagery. The penultimate track (and last song listed on the back cover), "Swan Swan H", describes the aftermath of The American Civil War and the realization that black Americans weren't fully free in its wake.
  • Call-Forward: Later CD reissues (the ones with green labels) list "Cuyahoga" as track "0R" on the disc label, nodding to Green, which was originally released after Lifes Rich Pageant and lists its own fourth track, "Stand", as track "R".
  • Color Motif: Green and orange, both colors that yellow is a component of, to the point where later CD releases feature an orange-on-green disc label instead of the previous black-on-transparent. Sadly (for those used to their '90s CD packaging), no CD releases used a green or orange jewel case tray.
  • Concept Album: Themes of sociopolitical protest dominate the album, carrying over into their next two records as well.
  • Covers Always Lie: The back cover features the album's tracklist very much out of order on both LP and CD copiesnote ; the disc labels though feature the proper sequence. Whether or not this was an intentional decision or simply the result of the running order being changed at the last minute is difficult to determine.
  • Cover Version: "Superman", originally by now-obscure '60s sunshine pop band the Clique.
  • Credits Gag: The back cover's out-of-order tracklist contains a brief passage of text next to each song. Some of them are direct quotations from the lyrics, others simply continue the song's themes without quoting them. The intended-to-be-hidden tracks "Underneath the Bunker" and "Superman" are additionally nodded to with a spot that just reads "+ ———".
  • Darker and Edgier: The subject matter of the songs become much more mature and serious, thanks to the dominant Protest Song angle, and the music gets rougher and more aggressive; Document a year later would only further up the ante.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The album cover, apart from the orange logotypes, is almost entirely monochrome; some versions are purely black and white, others add a green tint.
  • Earth Song: Two environmentalist songs are present on the album. The first, "Fall On Me", is about air pollution. The second, "Cuyahoga", was inspired by Ohio's Cuyahoga River, which was so heavily polluted it caught fire on multiple occasions (which comes up in the lyrics).
  • Face on the Cover: A headshot of Bill Berry, with a photograph of two buffaloes laid atop the bottom half.
  • Festering Fungus: "The Flowers of Guatemala" describes Amanita muscaria fungi as a metaphor for American military intervention in Latin America, particularly America's role in enabling the Guatemalan genocide.
  • Franchise Codifier: R.E.M. already spent the '80s establishing themselves as Alternative Rock pioneers, but Lifes Rich Pageant set the stage for the bulk of their material. Its shift to a more Hard Rock-based sound, Michael Stipe's move to making his murky vocals clearer, and the greater focus on socially conscious lyrics would lay the groundwork for the 11 albums that followed it.
  • Fungi Are Plants: "The Flowers of Guatemala" focuses on Amanita muscaria fungi, which the lyrics describe as flowers.
  • Green Aesop: "Fall on Me" was originally about acid rain, while "Cuyahoga" is partly about the eponymous polluted river in Ohio (which notoriously caught fire on 13 separate occasions).
  • Hidden Track: "Underneath the Bunker" and "Superman" were supposed to be these, according to the band, hence why they aren't listed on the packaging (only being alluded to by a spot on the tracklist that reads "+ ———"), but because they were listed on the disc/tape label, buyers inevitably had the tracks' existence spoiled for them. The effect was given away even more on the CD release, since CD players would display two more tracks than were listed on the back.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: LP and cassette releases divide the album between a "Dinner Side" and a "Supper Side".
  • Inherited Illiteracy Title: The album title's missing apostrophe stems from a typo that Michael Stipe made when typing the album name for the packaging; the band liked the look of it and ran with it.
  • The Invisible Band: The band members are not seen at all in the video for "Fall on Me".
  • Large Ham: Thanks to him no longer muddying his vocals in the music, Michael Stipe now adopts a more passionate style of delivery, one that reviewers would compare to both Celtic and Muslim chants.
  • Lead Bassist: "Cuyahoga" is driven primarily by Mike Mills' bassline.
  • Limited Lyrics Song: "Underneath The Bunker", which is mostly instrumental except for the ending, which consists entirely of two stanzas:
    I will hide and you will hide
    And we shall hide together here
    Underneath the bunkers in the night
    I have water, I have rum
    Wait for dawn and dawn shall come
    Underneath the bunkers in the night
  • Lineage Ladder: The first verse of "Cuyahoga" calls the audience to "put our heads together and start a new country up," before immediately noting that "our father's father's father tried, erased the parts he didn't like," indicating the eternal cycle of change that has punctuated American history (in this case, shifting from the Native American genocide to the fight to create a better America).
  • Lyrical Dissonance:
    • "Fall on Me", an upbeat-sounding song about the devastation caused by acid rainfall.
    • "Cuyahoga" is an anthemic song about disillusionment with America and the dark legacy of the Native American genocide, framed through the lens of the Cuyahoga River's history.
    • "Superman" sounds pretty upbeat, but the lyrics describe the narrator as obsessively jealous about a romantic interest and their boyfriend.
  • Lyric Video: "Fall on Me", featuring the lyrics in large orange type across black and white footage of a railroad track in the vein of the album cover's design.
  • Miniscule Rocking: "Underneath the Bunker" doesn't even reach a minute and a half in length.
  • New Sound Album: The music becomes more Hard Rock-influenced, Peter Buck switches from jangly arpeggios to more conventional guitar riffs, Michael Stipe stops burying his vocals, and the band as a whole casts off the Post-Punk influences that characterized their first three records.
  • Non-Appearing Title: Played with on "Swan Swan H": the verses open with the line "swan, swan, hummingbird," but the exact phrase "Swan Swan H" is never uttered (assuming that "H" isn't simply an abbreviation in the vein of "So. Central Rain").
  • One-Man Song: "Superman", a unique case in that the one man is the narrator rather than the (explicitly female) love interest.
  • One-Word Title: "Cuyahoga", "Hyena", "Superman".
  • Protest Song: More like "Protest Album" in this case, with most of the tracks focusing on themes of social activism.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot:
    • "Cuyahoga" is named after and based on the river of the same name in Ohio; due to extensive and persistent water pollution over the decades, the river repeatedly caught fire throughout the 20th century, hence the line "we'll burn the river down."
    • As recounted in a 2021 Pitchfork interview, both "These Days" and "I Believe" were inspired by an incident where Stipe accidentally blinded himself by trying to wear a disused pair of contact lenses while also dealing with lingering mental health problems, both of which led to a number of "crazy dreams" that inspired the lyrics to both songs.
    • The line "when I was young and fever fell" in "I Believe" alludes to an incident in Michael Stipe's life where he contracted scarlet fever just before his second birthday, an incident he claimed to still remember in adulthood.
    • "Just a Touch" was based on the public reaction to Elvis Presley's death in 1977. The title and title lyric specifically come from a poster Michael Stipe saw the night Presley died, advertising an Elvis impersonator with the tagline "Is it the King... or just a touch?"
  • Red/Green Contrast: The album art makes prominent use of both orange (of which red is a component) and green tones.
  • Rule of Three: Invoked in "These Days", which features the line "we have many things in common, name three (three! three! three!)." What's more, each "three" is sung by a different member: the first by Mills, the second by Berry, and the third by Stipe.
  • Sampling: "Superman" opens with the sound of a pull-string Godzilla doll; the single release omits this due to licensing issues.
  • Self-Referential Track Placement: The song titled "Begin the Begin" is the opening track, effectively beginning the album.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The album title comes from a line in A Shot in the Dark, said after a scene in which Inspector Clouseau falls into a fountain:
      Maria: You should get out of these clothes immediately! You'll catch your death of pneumonia, you will.
      Clouseau: Yes, I suppose I probably will. But it's all part of life's rich pageant, you know.
    • "Begin the Begin" uses German priest Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, as a metaphor for political protest. It also contains a reference to Myles Standish, a noted English military officer who served during the colonial era in what is now Massachusetts.
    • According to a 2007 Q&A with Michael Stipe, the lines "tiger run around the tree/Follow the leader, run and turn into butter" in "Begin the Begin" are a reference to The Story of Little Black Sambo.
    • "Just a Touch" closes out with Michael Stipe singing "I'm so young, I'm so goddamn young," quoting an ad-lib from Patti Smith's cover of The Who's "My Generation".
    • According to an interview Michael Stipe conducted with Stereogum in 2021, the lyrics to "Swan Swan H" were derived from a Civil War-era needle embroidery he saw in the American Folk Museum.
    • Three guesses as to how "Superman" applies to this trope.
  • Start My Own: "Cuyahoga" opens with the line "let's put our heads together and start a new country up."
  • Stealth Pun: The album cover, which composites a photo of drummer Bill Berry and a stock image of two buffalo, is a visual nod to 19th century adventurer and entertainer Buffalo Bill.
  • Step Up to the Microphone: For the first time on an R.E.M. album, someone other than Michael Stipe provides lead vocals on a song: specifically, Mike Mills sings the lead part on "Superman", with Stipe relegating himself to background vocals. The choice to do this was done as a compromise for Stipe, who detested the song but was outvoted by his bandmates in regards to its inclusion.
  • Talk About the Weather: Spun in a dark way with "Fall on Me", which is about acid rain.
  • Title-Only Chorus:
    • Michael Stipe's vocals in "Fall on Me" fulfil this, though Mike Mills' backing vocals are entirely different.
    • The secondary chorus of "Cuyahoga" simply goes "Cuyahoga; Cuyahoga gone."
  • The X of Y: "The Flowers of Guatemala"