May 16, 2007
About one third of Lifes Rich Pageant is comprised of tracks that were either adapted from previously scrapped songs or worked out in the studio to make up for a lack of new material. “Hyena” was originally written back in 1984, and was a concert staple on the tours for Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction before it was finally fleshed out in the studio with producer Don Gehman. They were wise to keep it under wraps for so long. The original demo, which can be heard on the bonus disc of the recent And I Feel Fine hits compilation, is more than a little undercooked. The beat is not brisk enough, the guitar tone is muddy, and the dual lead vocal is far too messy. Gehman got it exactly right — the final studio recording feels extraordinarily sunny, breezy, and streamlined. Mike Mills’ vocals are pushed into the background enough so that he barely registers until the chorus, and though the track loses a bit of its original novelty, Stipe’s superior melody and lyrics are allowed enough room to flourish.
Lyrically, “Hyena” makes much more sense in the context of Lifes Rich Pageant than it would have on either of that record’s predecessors. The song is essentially an allegory comparing the way powerful nations assert their dominance over small, impoverished regions to the ruthlessness of the food chain, which ties in nicely with the album’s general theme of connecting human politics to the natural world. However, despite the fact that it’s a rather clever satire of American foreign policy, its words may be a bit too vague and esoteric to be rhetorically effective.