In which our heroes refine their songwriting but keep their mysterious alchemy.
For many, the introduction to the unlikely story of REM’s journey to world dominance began with the mandolin-driven (and most unlikely uber-hit of 1991) ‘Losing My Religion’. Soon after, the ‘Automatic For the People’ (1992) album dropped, and resistance to the REM juggernaut was futile – though it was to their full credit that success was achieved without alienating long term fans and music critics, and staying true to their own quirky world vision.
However, ‘Automatic…’ was actually, almost incredibly, REM’s eighth album, and there had been plenty of jaw-dropping music before it arrived. They had first launched themselves into the music world with two records which sounded like musical twins, the sublime ‘Murmur‘ (1983) followed by the equally fine ‘Reckoning’ (1984). Their band name (REM is an acronym for ‘rapid eye movement’, the stage of sleep which brings intense dreams) proved a perfect description for the swirling music within, which, when coupled with Michael Stipe’s obscure dream-like images (mixed so low in the mix that it was as if the singer was whispering mysterious sage-like epithets in your inner ear), proved an utterly intoxicating concoction.
Of course, they couldn’t keep playing the same musical trick over and over; so third album ‘Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) arrived. Or possibly ‘Reconstruction of the Fables’ if you preferred, or even a combination of both – very REM to do that to a title! It was still great, it was still thoughtful and full of otherworldliness, but there was a feeling that musical muscles were beginning to be stretched, evidenced by the oddly disjointed opener ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’, and particularly on the lyrical character study ‘Old Man Kinsey’ and the gentle banjo-led lullaby ‘Wendell Gee’.
However, with their fourth offering, ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ (1986) a great leap forward happened.
The changes afoot weren’t immediately apparent, as the album was heralded in with a squeal of noise and the almost punky energy of ‘Begin the Begin’ and ‘Just a Minute’.
Come the third track ‘Fall On Me’, though, and a suddenly much more polished, even pop, sensibility appears, with a concise melodic song and a huge surging chorus; it is also one of the first tracks to showcase bass player/multi -instrumentalist Mike Mills’ extraordinary facility for harmony and counterpoint. It lends the song so much musicality, that it becomes a fixture in many future REM arrangements – on this record, the beautiful ‘The Flowers of Guatemala’ is another example (though perhaps his finest moment was still to come, on ‘Automatic’s‘ ‘Find The River’).
The two songs that give the album it’s heart and it’s direction come towards the centre of the record. First off, the distinctly laid back, rootsy vibe of ‘Cuyahoga’. It almost seems like a statement of intent, with the opening couplet imploring “Let’s put our hands together, and start a new country up'” Was this a sign of the confidence of a band having established its own landscape? Come and join us, they seem to be saying, you can be safe in a beautiful place, though it’s not without a creeping sense of unease and melancholy. The song is wrapped up in apparently Native American imagery, and possibly the story of a people confused and displaced. As one nation prospers, does it inevitably have to be at the cost of another? Stipe would never offer an easy world view, but he will give us a chance to reflect on the consequences of success – and there are always consequences.
Next up, with the tempo increasing, but the mood remaining questioning, is ‘Hyena’. A mysterious woman acts as a guide to strange times – it’s impossible to know where we are or what is going on, but there is an urgent sense that all may not be well. “She’ll tell you when and where and how and why you’d hurt” “The only thing to fear is fearlessness / The bigger the weapon, the greater the fear / Hyena is ambassador to here”.
Other highlights include the gloriously banjo-driven, super-catchiness of ‘I Believe’, and the almost-nursery rhyme quirkiness of ‘Swan Swan H’, before the album finally closes out with ‘Superman’, an obscure 60’s B-side by bubblegum band the Clique. In REM’s hands, the proclamation “I am Superman, and I know what’s happening” seems tinged more with desperation and anxiety than snotty chutzpah, though.
The music throughout marks itself out as an early forerunner of Americana – songs with form and structure, natural sounds, no splashy drums or synths, acoustic instruments starting to shine through the mix, and the Byrds-y jangle that characterised their earlier records still firmly in place.
REM would go on to have bigger selling records, and it would be hard to argue with ‘Out of Time’ and ‘Automatic For the People’ being the moment when all the stars aligned; but ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ marks the moment when the band found its full range, and it remains a joy of a record, full of the energy of youth, but mixed in with some wisdom gained, some story-telling, and plenty of musical beauty.