With rock veterans Pearl Jam, the term “back-to-basics” is meaningless. Working from punk and classic rock templates, all they ever had was basics. The band made a determined effort from their inception to see how much creativity they could wring out of a couple guitars, bass, and drums. So to ascribe the critical and commercial buzz surrounding their eighth studio album to a “back-to-basics” ethos on behalf of the band is pure radio-speak bullshit. The band never forayed into collaborations with the London Symphony Orchestra or gospel choirs. Even pianos are few and far between in the Pearl Jam canon. Instead of delving into superficial experimentalism, the band grew sideways. Since the general public stopped paying close attention around 1995, the band has been slowly perfecting everything it already did well, digging deeper into its roots and paying better attention to melody and songcraft. Pearl Jam is another straight-up collection of raw, blistered rock and moody mid-tempo balladry. The difference here, and the reason for excitement, is that the self-titled record more consistently achieves the grandeur, rage, and beauty they’ve always pursued, throughout its entirety.
The album’s first single, “World Wide Suicide”, has been a surprise radio/internet download phenomenon right out of the gate—so much so that one of my high school students even asked me if I knew it. The song’s charms are more immediate than any Pearl Jam single in recent memory (“Nothing As It Seems” anyone?), displaying Vedder’s underrated talent for writing rock and roll as catchy as it is emotional. It’s got a big, clear-cut chorus, and Vedder’s unmistakable throaty scream, but it’s also wordy as hell. Starting with a newspaper obit for a fallen G.I., and moving rapidly to a president who tells the world to pray “while the devil’s on his shoulder”, the sheer amount of verbiage packed into the song’s three and half minutes makes its popular success even more of a puzzle. Perhaps mainstream music fans are finally hungry and ready for anti-war rhetoric in their rock and roll. It also helps that the music provides a spoonful of sugar for the medicine, unlike the thudding, purple poetry of “Bushleaguer”, from 2002’s uneven Riot Act.
The themes of action and engagement are dominant on Pearl Jam, and not only in the lyrics. Musically, it’s among the band’s most aggressive efforts. The first five songs are breathlessly possessed, beginning with “Life Wasted”. “You’re always saying you’re too weak to be strong / You’re harder on yourself than just about anyone / Why swim the channel just to get this far / Halfway there, why would you turn around?” is a call to arms, a renouncement of defeatism as the band collectively pummels their instruments. “Comatose” is needle-sharp punk that recalls “Spin the Black Circle” with its kinetic force and rubbed-raw vocals declaring “High above I’ll break the law / If it’s illegal to be in love / Leave the hatred on the cross.” The chunky guitar assault of “Marker in the Sand” supports an examination of religion as a positive/negative force in the world, charged and enervating on the verses before melting into a steadily rising chorus. Vedder expounds on the current culture war between Islam and Christianity, “Now you got both sides claiming ‘killing in God’s name’ / But God is nowhere to be found / Conveniently”, the music stretching out into a spiky bridge.
Countless bands that have followed in Pearl Jam’s wake have tried to imitate Vedder’s passion but instead translated it into solipsism, using pale imitations of his trademark voice to peddle the most annoying “Why me?” shtick. But Pearl Jam has always looked outward to give both personal and character songs greater context. From “Rearviewmirror” to “MFC” and now with “Gone”, one of Vedder’s recurring themes has been escapism via the highway. The flipside to getting in the trenches of issue-oriented rock is the need to get away, “Oh the lights of the city / They only look good when I’m speeding”. It’s a simple line, but enough to convey the exhausting omnipresence of urban sprawl. “If nothing is everything / Then I will have it all” isn’t nihilism, it’s Henry David Thoreau. “Gone” starts out like a dirge, a low moan in the dark, then builds efficiently into one of their more convincing anthems. This summer, packed amphitheaters will be singing along to “Gonna leave ‘em all behind me / Cause this time I’m gone” and the irony will be delicious.
I’ve gone this far without even mentioning the two most astounding tracks on Pearl Jam, such is the strength and consistency of the album. Every song feels like it’s earned the right to be included, where previous efforts could sometimes fall prey to hit-or-miss syndrome. “Unemployable” feels like the big payoff of Vedder’s work writing in the third person. Over drummer Matt Cameron’s tricky time signature shifts, Vedder tells the story of a regular Joe sacrificed to the gods of capitalism. It’s got the Springsteen stink of realism with run-on details like “He’s got a big gold ring that says ‘Jesus Saves’ / And it’s dented from the punch thrown at work that day / When he smashed the metal locker where he kept his things / After the big boss say ‘You best be on your way’”. It’s also got the smooth ring of poetry, “His brain weighs the curse of thirty bills unpaid.” But best of all, the battery of Cameron and bassist Jeff Ament give the song a bottom-heavy southern rock feel on the low-end, while guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready skate around in circles on top. It’s Pearl Jam at its most “well-oiled machine”, the “blood on all the pistons / running [the] transmission” Vedder sings of on “Comatose”. Better put: it fucking rocks.
“Army Reserve” is just as good if not better, a devastating portrait of a family affected by the war in Iraq, a mother trying hard to keep it together while her husband is overseas. What could have been dreadfully heavy-handed and sentimental, is instead almost exhilarating at the song’s climax, “I’m not blind / I can see it coming / Looks like lightning / In my child’s eye”. The line sounds one thousand percent better than it reads. Vedder nearly explodes, and if you hear “love’s like lightning” instead of “looks like lightning” it might not be a coincidence. The music, penned by Ament, is a spacey mixture of Neil Finn with a dash of U2, and again includes tempo and rhythm changes that enhance the song’s progression. It sounds like nothing and everything they’ve ever done all at once. The rest of the album shares that quality, from the sparse and elegant “Parachutes” to the torchy “Come Back”. To glide over them here in no way represents their worth, or importance in the grand scheme of Pearl Jam, which seems to be, to quote “Big Wave”, to “scream in affirmation”. Pretty basic.