REM, Lifes Rich Pageant

Upon purchasing this CD in high school I noticed that the jewel case spines were upside down and carefully detached them and taped them right side up back into position. It did not dawn on me that this might have been a deliberate artistic quirk on the bands part, like the general eschewing of apostrophes, the completely disordered track listing and the number R which comes after 3 and before 5; to this day the jewel case in my office is still like that. This is only one of the many artistic novelties of the album but the biggest was to discard generally the moody air of the troubled Fables of the Reconstruction for a lighter, more eighties-rock flair while keeping their political sensibilities intact. Indeed, lead track "Begin the Begin" reminds the listener the goal is still revolution(ary): their ecological message, soon to be developed further on Green, shines through in "Cuyahoga" replete with burning river references, the dangerous death squads of central America become the poisonous Amanita among the blooms of the populace in the Murmur-esque "The Flowers of Guatemala," and "Hyena" mixes the riff from "These Days" with a fable on the posturing of warlords and the album's most quotable lyric ("the only thing to fear is fearlessness"). Michael Stipe can still get himself tied up in his own intertexual references (witness "Just a Touch" and "Swan Swan H"), but even these are worthy listens, and the exuberant "What If We Give It Away?" and especially "I Believe" (with charismatic rattlesnake church reference) are a welcome return to classic form. The album highlight, though, is the second of two secret tracks (theres another artistic quirk), the band's cover of The Clique's "Superman," whose driving beat, surf rock harmonies and relentlessly bravado lyrics made it and keep it one of the high points in 1980's college pop. One of the last of their IRS releases, the band was poised for a new feel and a wider audience moving to Warner Brothers, but this album fortunately avoids the stylistic instability other lesser bands have suffered during those transitions and greatly to its credit. Later IRS reissues add several of the horrid crappy covers and B-sides from Dead Letter Office (q.v.), and the 25th anniversary version adds the so-called Athens Demos, early versions of Lifes tracks no one was asking for (plus a couple different crappy tracks). But then I suppose you don't have to buy Dead Letter Office to find out how bad they are, so they might be doing us a favour. (Content: no concerns.)