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Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam
J Records

Former grunge gods wage war on the darkness, try to find the light

In the annals of rock history, Pearl Jam is one of the few bands to go the road less traveled and survive. After leading the grunge movement in the early 90s, commercial success pushed the band to the fringes of fame where they would unapologetically live outside the trappings of stardom. In a sea of sellouts, it was an atypical course, but one that demanded the utmost respect. Pearl Jam became an outlier on the chart of ubiquity but carried on as uncompromising artists who made music first for themselves, while never abandoning their true fans. (Radiohead would follow.)

But in Pearl Jam's departure from the mainstream, the music took on a looser and rougher form, and consequently began a descent into relative mediocrity with 2000's Binaural and ensuing with 2002's Riot Act. Since that time, the world has continued to spiral downward and the remaining PJ followers have been impatiently waiting for Eddie Vedder, their fearless frontman and savior, to weigh in on the state of the union. (Plus they're just itching for another great Pearl Jam CD.) That time has come.

Pearl Jam is not the band's best work, but in a post-grunge and post-9/11 world, it may be their most important. The album will naturally win over unwavering fans who hang on to Vedder's every word, but everyone else who's been wishing for another Ten or Vs. will not get it (and may never). Still, this self-titled product is a success on many levels. For one, it's more accessible than recent records, as the band aimed for a little more commercial success this time around. The guitars retain the retro-rock edge from recent albums but the chord changes are less haphazard and the rapid-fire axe assaults more straightforwardly satisfying, particularly on "Severed Hand" and the ADD-addled "Worldwide Suicide". Vedder is also back in fine form, running the gamut from gruff bark ("Comatose") to affectation-free impassioned sweetness ("Parachutes"). His introspective and extrospective writing remains a combination of qualities: direct, disjointed, heartfelt, obtuse.

A lot is being said of the opening five-song juggernaut that pushes Pearl Jam into overdrive. Yes, the disc opens hard and fast. But more attention should be given to the last five songs - slower, more serious and sophisticated numbers that channel early PJ and flex melody over muscle. Take the escapist release of "Gone"; the churchy interlude of "Wasted Reprise"; the stir-the-pot lockstep of "Army Reserve"; and the tight, passionate guitar solos of "Come Back" and "Inside Job" that hearken back to the electrifying blues of earlier cuts like "Alive" and "Glorified G".

On past albums, Pearl Jam attacked institutions like civil rights, religion, Ticketmaster, and the music machine itself. On Pearl Jam, they aim their angst at Dubya's dubious war. As the overriding theme, Vedder analyzes different aspects of the war in Iraq, from its homicidal nature ("World Wide Suicide") to its crumbling effect on families ("Army Reserve") to God's role in all the mess ("Marker In The Sand"). "What does it mean when a war has taken over?" Vedder ruminates. He doesn't profess to know the solution, but he recognizes the delusion: "And in all the madness, thought becomes numb and naïve." All of which leads him to hightail it out of town in "Gone", in which he becomes disillusioned with the American dream.

But Vedder doesn't give up, leaning on love and a newfound sense of personal faith to stay afloat - this coming from a previously perpetual naysayer ("Life Wasted"). The end result may be nothing extraordinary on the surface, but it's moving to measure Vedder's internal transformation throughout the course of the album, which culminates with the pensively spiritual buildup, "Inside Job" (penned by guitarist Mike McCready). It is here where Vedder promises not to lose his faith from the darkness and seeks the power to pursue the "greater way for all" as a beacon of hope: "Let me run into the rain/To shine a human light today," he sings. Vedder may indeed be some sort of musical messiah.

If Pearl Jam is to save the world through rock & roll, this highly collaborative back-to-the-basics reawakening isn't a bad place to start. And, if history is any indication, Pearl Jam will continue to harness its power to fight the good fight for years to come. For Pearl Jam, always a battle. Always, five against one.

-Ken Devine

Standout Tracks: "World Wide Suicide", "Inside Job"

Track Listing:
1. Life Wasted
2. World Wide Suicide
3. Comatose
4. Severed Hand
5. Marker In The Sand
6. Parachutes
7. Unemployable
8. Big Wave
9. Gone
10. Wasted Reprise
11. Army Reserve
12. Come Back
13. Inside Job

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