“We are young despite the years,” Michael Stipe sang 25 years ago in “These Days,” trying to sound like an older man trying to sound younger. That line surely has a lot more resonance for the R.E.M. frontman now that he can sing it and mean it.
Meanwhile, fans have a fine excuse to return to the album that contained it, “Lifes Rich Pageant,” a 1986 milestone that’s getting the quarter-century anniversary deluxe treatment. Its defining alt-rock pageantry doesn’t sound a day over 15 … honest.
For fickle fans, “Lifes Rich Pageant” may be the easiest R.E.M. album to like – and there are good reasons why it became their first gold record — though diehard partisans would surely pick one of the later efforts as a favorite.
As the quartet’s fourth album, it more or less marks the End of the Jangle Era. There’s a deceptively forwardness to the opening track, “Begin the Begin,” which, besides de-punning Cole Porter’s pun, introduces the harder-edged guitar tones and more cutting vocal style that would replace their signature sound by the end of the ‘80s.
But for most of the rest of the original album's tracks, you still get Mike Mills’ sweet background vocals and Rickenbackers galore. And what a glorious — if, sure, slightly dated — Roger McGuinn-goes-new-wave signature that was.
If the promise of a remastered “Fall On Me” isn’t enough, the principal lure here is a bonus disc of demos recorded on the fly at an Athens, Georgia studio, well before some of the songs had been completed.
Stipe hums most of “I Believe" in place of actual lyrics, though that’s not entirely different than his mumblecore vocal approach on preceding albums. You also hear Peter Buck experimenting with a wider variety of guitar sounds than he did on the finished album – plus a few tracks that didn’t make the final cut, and a lot of charmingly muffed chords on the ones that did.
So do you want to hear this seminal batch of material polished, or punky? This “Rich” two-fer gives you a choice. Ironically, the looser demo material is closer in spirit to the rougher sound the band has cultivated on underrated recent albums like 2008's high-spirited "Accelerate." They were so much older then, in the Rickenbacker years… they're younger than that now.