With John Mellencamp producer Don Gehrman on board, this R.E.M. album features a cleaner, punchier sound, but without abandoning the band’s lush sonic palette. In particular, Michael Stipe has finally taken the marbles out of his mouth, singing somewhat coherent lyrics that reveal an emerging political conscience.
R.E.M. as a whole seem re-invigorated here, and the end result is easily the band’s most rocking and most varied collection to date. “Begin The Begin” and “These Days” begin things with the band’s loudest songs thus far, delivering straightforward but extremely strong rock ‘n’ roll that unleashes Berry and Buck. “Cuyahoga” is an evocative ecological ballad that’s one of the bands very best songs, and “The Flowers Of Guatemala” is a lovely lullaby-like ballad about U.S. intervention in Central America that gets louder too, and even has a soaring guitar solo. Elsewhere, atypical experiments that show off the band’s eclectic mindset include the Spanish flavored “Underneath The Bunker” (at 1:27 more an insubstantial segue than a song proper), the brief banjo break before the enjoyable up-tempo pop rock of “I Believe” (which has singable harmonies along with Buck’s Byrdsy guitar), some pretty piano kicking off the satisfactory if nothing special groove rocker “Hyena,” the fun if cheesy keyboards on the punk-ish “Just A Touch,” and the accordion that briefly brightens the somber Civil War ballad “Swan Swan H.”
“What If We Give It Away” delivers another pleasurably hooky mid-tempo melody, but the two must-have songs here for any R.E.M. playlist are “Fall On Me,” a gorgeous ballad about acid rain (and the first R.E.M. song I ever heard way back when), and the super-catchy sing along “Superman,” a cover song sung by Mike Mills that was originally done by an obscure band called The Clique. Then again, there are several other playlist candidates as well (“Cuyahoga,” “Begin The Begin,” “These Days,” “The Flowers Of Guatemala,” and “Swan Swan H” would possibly make mine), and overall this was a far more upbeat and superior collection than its predecessor, in part due to the re-emergence of R.E.M.’s wonderful harmonies.
Although it slumps slightly in its mid-section, Lifes Rich Pageant saw R.E.M. continuing to grow as a band, and though they were edging ever closer to the mainstream, they were doing so without any loss of integrity; the band’s commercial breakthrough soon beckoned.