In a 2011 Rolling Stone article, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder was asked for his take on the growing nostalgia for the 1990s. He replied, “I feel like we have to keep our eyes on the road. Being nostalgic is like taking an off-ramp and getting a sandwich – and then you get back on the highway. I don’t want to be spending the rest of my life at the gas station.”
Arguably, Pearl Jam’s subsequent album, 2013’s Lightning Bolt saw them idling at the gas station a little too long, probably with a map spread out across the hood, poking their fingers at possible routes. Safe and underwhelming, too often, the songs felt trapped in the band’s self-made comfort zone. Subsequently, the impression grew that the band knew it too. After wrapping up initial touring for the record, Vedder embarked on numerous solo tours whilst each member took time out to flex their creative muscles in various side projects. When they did tour, the band’s reliably triumphant shows focused on the past with little indication that they were anywhere close to hitting the highway again for another album.
It’s not a total surprise then, that new album Gigaton comes a whole seven years after Lightning Bolt. What’s more surprising is that it’s the sound of a band completely liberated by any idea of what a Pearl Jam album should be. It’s impassioned, inventive, and easily one of the most enjoyable records of the band’s career.
“Who Ever Said” opens the album with uncharacteristic, swirling arpeggiated synths before the familiar growl of expectant guitars. On first listen, it’s a fairly straightforward uptempo rocker, the kind that opens the majority of Pearl Jam albums. However, dig deeper, and it’s something more. It’s a statement. It’s the group exploring the space between the distorted chords and spiky riffs, adding unexpectedly rich, musical layers. Sprightly ’60s garage rocker “Super Blood Wolf Moon” continues in the same vein with the band emboldened by a transfusion of new musical blood. However, wade deeper and the song reveals its true form with Vedder’s righteous rage shining through. “Love notwithstanding. We are each of us fucked.”
Somewhat divisive on its initial release, “Dance of the Clairvoyants” sounds incredible in the context of the album. Inspired by their collective love of new wave, it rides a post-punk bass groove adorned with twinkling synths and jagged guitar squalls. “Quick Escape” is arguably the best song on the album. Musically, It’s Jeff Ament’s baby as he directs instruments to venture to places you’d least expect. While the bassline provides the backbone, Guitars rip and stutter, never settling in one place for too long with piano flourishes and vocal samples adding color to the margins.
The gorgeously atmospheric “Alright” draws you in under its dizzying spell of circling piano notes and the haunting sound of a plucked Kalimba. Thankfully, these inventive flourishes and experimentations never come at the expense of memorable melodies and hooks. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Seven O’Clock”, which opens with swirling backward loops before gracefully morphing into a catchy, mid-tempo rocker.
Similarly, the mood just as easily shifts from earnest to plain old fun as on the swinging, Stonsey rocker “Never Destination”. Meanwhile, the Cameron penned, “Take The Long Way” is a more serious, brawny rock song with more than a hint of his (sadly) old band, Soundgarden. From there, slow-burner, “Buckle Up” marks the point where Peal Jam take their foot off the gas for the home stretch whilst keeping their eyes firmly on the road ahead.
Johnny Cash-Esque “Come Then Goes” is, musically, the most straightforward song on the album. Essentially just Vedder and an acoustic guitar, it’s him at his most openly reflective on a paean to a fading friendship. New wave ballad “Retrograde” is the only song on the album that fails to ignite fully, yet still features some delicious Mike McCready licks.
Gigaton concludes with “River Cross” — probably their most heartbreaking album closer since Vs‘ “Indifference”. Backed by pump organ and scuttling percussion, it’s the sound of Vedder contemplating life’s later acts and preparing to hand over the keys to the next generation.
Gigaton sounds like Pearl Jam convincingly doing their very best to not sound like Pearl Jam. Liberated from their past and their expectations, the band have freed themselves to take some long overdue risks. At this point, they are a very long way from the gas station indeed.