|The cover of the best R.E.M. album, even if it didn't exist until this article was posted.|
It's a best-kept secret among R.E.M. fans that their best album may just be Lifes Rich Pageant, as first suggested about a decade ago by The New Rolling Stone Album Guide. The album built upon its predecessor—the underrated Fables Of The Reconstruction—taking the "Old, Weird" Americana of the latter & couching it in a harder-rocking sound.
The problem is, that unlike The Official R.E.M. Classics like Murmur or Automatic For The People (&/or Document & Out Of Time, depending on your tastes), Lifes Rich Pageant doesn't quite get there, losing its way somewhere in the middle of its second side. A similar predicament keeps Fables Of The Reconstruction from reaching classic status, only its very best material is not as focused (or rocking) as Lifes Rich Pageant.
But the essential character of these two albums are similar to that of The Band's first two albums, Music From Big Pink & The Band. Music From Big Pink was a pioneer's journey (heightened by the quasi-crusade of "The Weight") while The Band was a settler's folktale (filled with the secular joy of "Up On Cripple Creek"); to quote Greil Marcus, the former was "an American mystery" & the latter was "A heartland adventure, with mysteries replaced by road maps, good booze, & dirty stories."
Fables Of The Reconstruction & Lifes Rich Pageant plays like a postmodern Music From Big Pink & The Band, respectively, though (truth be told) neither is quite strong enough to stand on its own as a definitive statement the way The Band's LPs can. However, if you put the two together into a mash-up—a Lifes Rich Reconstruction, if you will—you get one strong album that plows straight into the heart of the "Old, Weird America" & says as much about the country as any other rock album of the decade.
Checkering back & forth between Lifes Rich Pageant & Fables Of The Reconstruction, I came up with the following running order; along the way oceans fall & mountains drift, ships are driven on railroad tracks, & soldiers turn into noisy cats as girls & dogs bear their crosses.
Lifes Rich Reconstruction
Side 1: Pilgrims Pageant
1. Begin The Begin (From Pageant).
2. Maps & Legends (From Fables).
3. These Days (From Pageant).
4. Driver 8 (From Fables).
5. Fall On Me (From Pageant).
6. Old Man Kensey (From Fables).
7. Underneath The Bunker (From Pageant).
Side 2: Frontiersmans Fables
1. Feeling Gravity's Pull (From Fables).
2. Cuyahoga (From Pageant).
3. Can't Get There From Here (From Fables).
4. I Believe (From Pageant).
5. Life & How To Live It (From Fables).
6. Swan Swan H (From Pageant).
Side 1: Pilgrims Pageant
1. Begin The Begin: A venture out into a virgin New World—owing equal parts to Myles Standish, the Pilgrim who headed the Mayflower Colony's militia & Martin Luther Zen, a hybrid of the Reformation reformer, a buddhist monk, & Martin Luther King, Jr.—all pulled into an untouched continent by a guitar riff & bathed in the sea breeze of electric feedback, stomped out by a driving snare drum.
2. Maps & Legends: A mapping of the land in mysteries & riddles, anchored in a break that plays like a postmodern Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," if that song was sung in the middle of the dense forest by a band spread out to its disparate corners—he's to be reached, he's not to be reached, indeed.
3. These Days: A rallying cry that sounds like it's coming from a mountaintop, even if it calls for a march into the sea; sung by a man who was born in Decatur, Georgia—the same place that General William T. Sherman had begun his march to the sea 96 years earlier.
4. Driver 8: A prelude to "The Wreck Of The Old 97," which reaches into the number between 9 & 7 to paint a picture of a stone walls & rolling fields, all witnessed by an engine driver who is convinced they will reach their destination before he has to take a break.
5. Fall On Me: An atomic nightmare painted in iron feathers, arms stretched towards the sky but hands grasping nothing except confusion—yet how beautiful it all sounds.
6. Old Man Kensey: An idiot's lament or a senile's quest; either way, it established a character, who, along with Martin Luther Zen & Driver 8, looms larger in myth than they ever could in reality.
7. Underneath The Bunker: A WWI cylinder recording influenced by Spain but waxed in the south of France—& a doughboy's cry for shelter, fear, or love, depending on who hears it.
Side 2: Frontiersmans Fables
1. Feeling Gravity's Pull: The Earth as America, painted in a Man Ray sky overlooking oceans falling & mountains drifting; or, another version of "Begin The Begin" that takes things back to the beginning of time.
2. Cuyahoga: A calling card to put our heads together & start a new country up in a land where ancient rivers of the Iroquois has been set aflame by the pioneer's folly.
3. Can't Get There From Here: A chronicle of the elusive Northwest Passage, as sung by Lewis & Clark to a bemused Sacagawea.
4. I Believe: John Winthrop's "City Upon A Hill" sermon, with the city & hill replaced by the spirit of a rattlesnake & an appreciation for change.
5. Life & How To Live It: Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, told to a carpenter out & running about in the street, increasing in desperation until the whole thing collapses in a moment that holds as much force as everything that leads up to it.
6. Swan Swan H: A junkstore folktale chronicling the shift from Civil War to Reconstruction, complete with the gruesome souvenirs of Johnny Reb's bloody field—bone, chains, & toothpicks—all with an eye out to measure the cost of heroes in 6 words sung with a flat wariness that belies their meaning: "Hurrah, we are all free now."
The result is an America that is incomplete & unfinished—maps of legends & legends of maps. It is also on par with anything else R.E.M. (or most other bands) have ever recorded.