I would argue that Life's Rich Pageant is R.E.M.'s last alternative record. It definitely marks a transition from their early jangly-guitar sound, and many more of Michael Stipe's vocals are intelligible. (Actually, you can still hear the picked arpeggios, buried pretty deeply, in songs like "Flowers of Guatemala" and "Hyena," which I think testifies all the more to the move away from that sound.)
When I say Stipe's vocals are intelligible, I don't necessarily mean decipherable, just that you can often tell what actual words are uttered. The lyrics to one of my favorite songs, "Fall On Me," apparently go something like:
There's a problem, feathers iron
Bargain buildings, weights and pulleys
Feathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the air
Buy the sky and sell the sky and tell the sky and tell the sky
Fall on me (what is it up in the air for)(it's gonna fall)
Fall on me (if it's there for long)(it's gonna fall)
Fall on me (it's over it's over me)(it's gonna fall)
... which seems to bespeak forthcoming doom related to cheap construction?? But this is what I liked about Stipe's lyrics, when they made any damned sense at all - he was good at impressionistically evoking moods or moments. "Flowers of Guatemala" is another one, where there's a lot of talk about pretty flowers and happy people, sung by Stipe in a tense, petrified falsetto, and which music critics and fans took to be about death squads then running amok in the Guatemalan countryside.
I would also argue that this is R.E.M.'s best album, but that's probably because I still think of them as an alternative band. (I found it very difficult to forgive them turning into a rock and roll band, but figured that they were still doing good stuff. When, briefly, they became a pop act, I gave up.) Many of the songs have political sensibilities to them, though, typically for Stipe, not of any clearly ideological bent. Stipe seemed to be pro-people and anti-killing people, more or less.
Every album after this - and I mean every one - is more of a rock or pop record, has more straightforward and deliberate lyrics, and hence lacks the two things that I always thought made R.E.M. great: the alt sound and Stipe's impressionism. I read an interview with Stipe some time ago in which he noted that there are songs they just won't play any more. More of them he listed were on this album than any other.
Perhaps strangely, I would not argue that this is the indispensable R.E.M. album. If there is one, I think it might be Fables of the Reconstruction - even though everyone else will probably say Murmur, and they could be right.
I played this thing