"Survivor: Seattle" left its share of casualties throughout the '90s. Kurt Cobain left the building far too soon. Alice in Chains ceased to continue after the tragedy of Layne Staley's cold fade into night. Soundgarden broke up after they found themselves "Down on the Upside". Even bands outside the rain of Seattle like the Smashing Pumpkins couldn't keep it together. All in all, it was a bad time for the makers of flannel and Doc Martens. With a talent for endurance that even Darwin would envy, Pearl Jam remains the last band standing.
For years now, Pearl Jam has sought to escape the arena-rock pigeonhole they found themselves in circa 1992. Derided by Saint Cobain, a leader of the purists, the backlash began somewhere around the 4,000,000th spin of “Jeremy”. Labeled as classic-rock retreads, Pearl Jam consistently proved to be a band out of time. Here in the “Age of Irony” was a group hell-bent on the righteous path. They (like their musical heroes The Who) were in search of music that meant something; Mudhoney they were not. In perhaps the most famous of their virtuous deeds, they took on the monopolistic behemoth known as Ticketmaster. After a fight that sent virtually all other bands scurrying, Pearl Jam was left for dead beneath the mega-corporate boot of greed. Subsequent tours were cancelled, ironically taking the focus off of Pearl Jam’s exalted purpose—the music. The masses grew tired of the self-dictated detachment and the band was lampooned for its tight fist and rutted brow. “Not For You” took on new meaning. Album sales plunged, MTV scoffed, and magazine covers were forced to go without the famous furrowed visage of Eddie Vedder. Famously, Rolling Stone went so far as to publish an unauthorized cover story on “The Real Eddie Vedder”, which claimed, among other earth-shattering truths, that little Eddie Vedder actually smiled in high school! The world was angry at Pearl Jam. But, something funny happened on the way to oblivion: they arrived at #2 on the Billboard pop charts.
“Last Kiss”, a pretty cover tune distributed as a Christmas gift for fan club members, suddenly rang out from radios across America. The generation that had N’Sync on repeat began to sing along with a guy named Vedder (“Oh where, oh where can my BABY BE!”). In true Pearl Jam fashion, they achieved success without clamoring for it. The achievement of “Last Kiss” was all the more remarkable when one considers the corrupt solidity of radio playlists. Here was a song not even meant for the airwaves, yet, in a purely organic way, unearthed the ears of millions. Somehow, Pearl Jam discovered the hidden mantra for longevity: focus on the music.
With their counterparts falling one by one, they had released a string of albums that followed the beat of their own drummer (even if that was to be its most Spinal Tap-like position with four skins-men over seven albums). In 1996, they released No Code, a meditative reflection engulfed by tribal beats (courtesy of drummer number three Jack Irons). February of 1998 gave way to Yield, a slight return to the roots of anthem with a mature twist. Another two years passed and the beaten path of Binaural was revealed. An attempt at a more ethereal sound, it was the first album in nearly 10 years not to be produced by the stalwart Brendan O’Brien. In his place, Tchad Blake oversaw a band trying to find its way. At times, the record produced a permeating beauty with floating dirges like “Nothing As It Seems”. Too often, however, the writer’s block Vedder admits to have suffered during the recording reared its ugly head. Binaural was an interesting exploration that ultimately lacked the cohesive wallop needed to carry an entire album. Which brings us to the task at hand: Riot Act.
Simply put, Riot Act is the conclusion of an epic that began with the off-ramp surge of No Code. The fruit of their toil is evident in the intricate wisdom of lyrics and music as one. A cohesive attack of 15 songs, Riot Act is a concept album about philosophical matters in American life: Love vs. Greed, Man against Nature, and the Haves versus the Have-nots.
Not since Vitalogy has Eddie Vedder presented such a consistent thread in his lyrics. Perhaps the most moving is “Love Boat Captain”, an exploratory hymn that carries the memory of the “nine friends we’ll never know” who died during a 2000 Pearl Jam show in Denmark. The finished product shows a man who has gained crucial perspective on life (“And the young, they can lose hope / Cuz they can’t see beyond today / The wisdom that the old can’t give away”). Perfectly complemented by the organ of rookie sixth member “Boom” Gaspar, “Love Boat Captain” pulls off an incredible feat by becoming a soaring elegy.
The philosophy lesson continues on the waltz build of “I Am Mine”. The times of uncertainty in which we live often manufacture a loss of control. “I Am Mine” is a heartening message to those losing their grasp. When the world without you falls to chaos, there is hope within (“I know I was born / And I know that I’ll die / The in between is mine / I am mine”). By the time the song reaches the towering inferno of Mike McCready’s best guitar solo in years, the hooks of memory have begun.
The album also benefits greatly from the rock-steady pound of Matt Cameron. Now Pearl Jam’s longest-running drummer, Cameron takes every song and ratchets up the pressure. The remaining members of the band have clearly learned the instinct of following his lead. Part two of the rhythm section (Jeff Ament) trails him like a predator, tumbling bass lines across the foundation of the beat on songs like “Cropduster”, a lament that burns menace over a zig-zag guitar line. The atypical “You Are” (penned by Cameron) bears the mark of a guitar riff played through a drum machine that produces a sexy groove unlike anything Pearl Jam has previously created. The line “Sometimes I burn like a dot on the sun” captures the dense home of loneliness as McCready’s background solo echoes like the moan of a whale deep at sea.
Another detour from the ordinary arrives in the one-minute acapella “Arc”. Vedder goes to spiritual heights in the wailing style of his deceased friend, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The voice becomes a conduit for the definition of “arc”: the audible part of a celestial body’s path. With this and others on Riot Act, Eddie Vedder has managed to do the unthinkable. He’s taken his often-imitated voice and made it an original vehicle once again. This is no small feat for a man that launched a thousand cheesy carbon-copies (eh hem, Scott Stapp). Whether it’s the hushed prayer of “Can’t Keep” or the growling wail of “Save You”, Vedder has learned the art of vocal adaptation and his talent burns bright as an arc.
“Green Disease”, a new wave ditty bent on speed, begins a four-track suite centered on the poison of greed and the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. In a time of corporate mayhem, Vedder growls over the selfish actions of the “upper” class (“Like weeds with big leaves / Stealing light from what’s beneath”). Following the contraction of this “disease”, the song “helphelp” sounds like a desperate plea for truth. Instruments seem as if they’re packed into an echo chamber, upping the ante on paranoia. The faint narrator of “helphelp” repeatedly chants “Help me” and “Tell me lies” so as not to deal with the truth of corruption. It’s a cautionary tale for a society that’s been fed black and white notions about “the enemy” (“The man they call my enemy / I’ve seen his eyes, he looks just like me / A mirror”). “Bushleaguer” is a spoken-word jaunt penned for the leader of the free world who has his own famous notions about the enemy. In the tone of a full-fledged Nader supporter, Vedder balances satire (“born on third, thinks he got a triple”) with the stark reality of the world today (“blackout weaves its way through the city”). The final installment in the rich vs. poor quartet comes with “1/2 Full”, a seething mountain of blues. Built around the carnivorous crunch of three guitars, the lyrics focus on the elements of nature that man has polluted (“Climbing on the mountains / Floating out on the sea / Far from the lights of the city / The elements they speak to me / Whispering that life existed long before greed”). Pearl Jam sounds like a hurricane on the final build-up to the end, with Vedder howling at the moon for someone to “save the world.” It is in this spirit of passionate response that Pearl Jam has made some of the most vital music of its career. A “Riot Act” indeed.