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.
Standout Tracks: "World Wide Suicide", "Inside Job"
1. Life Wasted
2. World Wide Suicide
4. Severed Hand
5. Marker In The Sand
8. Big Wave
10. Wasted Reprise
11. Army Reserve
12. Come Back
13. Inside Job
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