Thursday, May 04, 2006


It should say something about my unconditional love and admiration for Mike, Jeff, Stone, Matt, and Eddie, that, less than 24 hours after Pearl Jam's latest release, I already had a few dozen inquiries for a review. From the years of 1998-2001 I did nothing but listen to Pearl Jam. I almost fistfought my roommate in college when he maligned "Thumbing My Way." I know every lyric--even the ones I don't relate to. I listen to "Hey, Foxymophandlemama, that's me." Eddie Vedder himself, when once asked about the source of his love for The Who, stated simply and without explanation, "They saved my life." These things are not overstatements.

Great bands matter. They matter in a way that transcends the music industry's relative norm. Good Charlotte matters to some kids by the lockers with black fingerpaint and an ear for melody. This month. But, fourteen years later, Pearl Jam matters in a way that reshapes the nature of band-fan interaction. Three of their last four records (No Code, Binaural, and Riot Act) were made with the almost blatant intention to diminish their "importance," clearly outline their fanbase, and, for God's sake, stop all the presses. They are quirky, frustrating albums--and intentionally so. But the backlash of deliberate quirkiness served not to make everyone forget: it only amplified their memory of how incredibly good Pearl Jam is when it wants to be. So we waited.

With Pearl Jam, their self-entitled release, the wait's over. Kind of. This album has everything anyone would want from a Pearl Jam record: classic hard-rock riffs ("World Wide Suicide," "Severed Hand"), thoughtful lyrics aimed squarely at social commentary (if not criticism), flashes of melodic briliance, unbelievable musicianship, and (of course) that untamed tenor soaring in the stratosphere.

The opening four tracks make a statement along the lines of "shut up and listen." As dominant as "World Wide Suicide" has been on the charts (reflecting at least SOME level of relevance, no?), "Life Wasted" is a stronger and more definitive song for the album, and "Severed Hand's" best moments are among my favorites of the record. Only "Comatose" and, later, "Big Wave" are audibly duller, but not necessarily less-enjoyable. Interestingly, the "Wasted Reprise" serves the most purpose of any other track, reminding the listener that this journey is not necessarily linear in chronology or scope: we're back where we started, but with a different attitude. Contentment has replaced indignance. But is this a good thing? Pearl Jam was always better at asking the questions than positing the answers ("Is that the question/and if so, who answers?" anyone??).

The album takes a more melodic turn at track five, with "Marker in the Sand," "Parachutes," "Unemployable," and "Gone" only being interrupted by "Big Wave." And, while everyone will focus on the raucous start and anthemic ending of the album, the middle third seems so engaging, so emminently listenable, and so thematically rich, that it's currently my favorite section. I think the album is 2-dimensional without it. "Parachutes" and "Gone" are good melodies with memorable lyrics, while "Unemployable" remains the most spot-on and best-executed track on the album, albeit with less scope. "Marker in the Sand" shifts from an Audioslavesque verse ("Cochise," anyone?) to a seemlessly great chorus. I can't overstate the greatness of this chorus. It is their single best musical moment since Yield's "In Hiding." Just listen to it. Please.

"Army Reserve" has been, and will continue to be, my sleeper favorite composition, because the song's tension is executed so beautifully and effortlessly in its refrain. This song's chorus also marks another time in which Eddie's lyrics are something of a throwback: abstract, imagistic, elusive, but somehow incommunicably relatable. "I can see it coming/looks like lightning in my child's eye." Well, we can't say definitively what it is (although I have a guess), but we don't really need to. It's on the horizon, and it's coming, and it's coming fast.

"Come Back" is clearly the album's anomoly: as my brother mentioned, it's a clear admission that this band has been heavily influenced by someone other than The Who, Fugazi, Led Zeppelin, and the Lennon catalogue of Beatles songs. Without explanation--other than the thematic link with this lyric and others, namely "Army Reserve" and "Parachutes"--we have an Otis Redding tribute that is eerily spot-on, down to the perfect arrangement, repetitive refrain, and vocal fireworks in a fading-outtro. Where did this come from? Does it matter? It is, even on first listen, one of the album's strongest tracks, and links beautifully the stylistic differences of the album's second and last thirds.

The mystery of "Inside Job," and to an extent my only contention with the album, is that it makes a lot of promises and can't seem to keep all of them. The Radiohead-inspired intro, which showcases Pearl Jam for the nearly peerless musicians and melodists that they are, sets an exciting foundation for a song. But somehow, in the lethargic, bass-driven verse and the forgettable refrain, I kept thinking, "this song might've been saying more when it wasn't saying anything."

This somehow connects to one frustration with the album, and the reason for my initial "Kind of": the album delivers everything you'd want from a classic Pearl Jam record, but doesn't necessarily play up to contemporary Pearl Jam's greatest strenghts: twelve years ago they were best at Zeppelin-laced riff-rock and hard, explosive jams. But Yield showed a matured band who's real strength had become textured musicianship, musical density, and an unbelievable ear for melody in every song's every unexplored corner. Pearl Jam made a great rock record, but the album's more nuanced moments (the chorus of "Marker," the guitar-playing on "Parachutes," the melodic build of "Unemployable," the entire execution of "Come Back," and that gorgeous, haunting intro for "Inside Job") are also its most memorable, pitch-perfect, and beautiful. This coming from a guy who loves hard-rock: this album's softer spots steal the show. They CLEARLY steal the show.

Which begs the question: After eight years of making the album they wanted to make, unbeholden to outside influences and public demands, did Pearl Jam finally make the album they knew their fans wanted to hear? Or does this record mark the realignment of their tastes with those of their fanbase? Or somewhere in between?

These are the questions I listen for. Not the answers.

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