They are the best rock band in the world, period. That’s not even an opinion, it’s fact. How do I know it’s fact? Because I was visited by a mysterious shadow in the night and he carved it in my forehead. That’s foreHEAD.
A bit of history on Pearl Jam because I know many of you kinda forgot about them after “Ten” (1991). The success of their first two records (“Vs” (1993) being their second) overwhelmed the band to the point where they became somewhat uncomfortable with it all (“Vs” sold 950,000 copies in its first week). “Vitalogy” (1994) marked a move away from commercial territory and the band made a conscious decision not to make music videos anymore.
This started to impact their popularity and although “No Code” (1996) and “Yield” (1998) hit #1 and #2 respectively on the Billboard charts, they quickly slid. “Binaural” (2000) was a more sombre and softer-sounder affair but contained classic tunes like “Thin Air”, “Nothing as it Seems”, “Grievance” and “Light Years”.
Their seventh album, a heavier, darker five-star effort called “Riot Act” (2002), was a criticial success but commercial failure – it shifted only 500,000 copies.
But in a couple of months their latest record, “Pearl Jam” (2006), has sold over 1,200,000 copies and download-only single “World Wide Suicide” was a #1 rock single and hit #41 on the Billboard charts.
So, they’re back you see. But is it any good?
Opening with “Life Wasted”, vocalist Eddie Vedder bemoans lazy, negative attitudes ‘ maybe one in particular: “You’re always saying that there’s something wrong/I’m starting to believe it’s your plan all along”. The catchy, rocky chorus of “I’ve tasted a life wasted/I’m never going back again” thunders along on a typical PJ riff. Great opener.
At a little over two minutes “Comatose” is perfect PJ punk – breakneck throb, in-your-face lyrics (“Put me in a vacuum/I’ll be hanging upside down/Blood on all the pistons”) and a wondrous solo from guitarist Mike McCready.
“Severed Hand” starts off with what sounds like a guitar track played backwards before finding its groove with a foot-tapping rock riff about drug use. The subject admits that he “Tried to walk, found a severed hand/recognized it by the wedding band” and accepting the risks involved in indulging: “”You’ll see dragons after 3 or 4…”. Terrific song.
“Unemployable” is a straight-on lament from the working man – “When he smashed the metal locker where he kept his things/After the big boss say ‘You best be on your way'”. Vedder talks about this now-jobless man whose “brain weighs the curse of thirty bills unpaid” and how “this life is sacrifice/Jumping trains just to survive”.
Pearl Jam have done a lot of introspective numbers over the years and there are several slowed-down moments on this album too. “Gone” is one of the album’s stand-outs about the need to get away from it all (“This American Dream I am disbelieving/I wanna leave em all behind me cause this time I’m gone”). Vedder’s clever lyric of “Feel like a question is forming/and the answer’s far” is a fine example of what he does best.
The excellent “Come Back” treads the well-worn path of lost love and although the most relaxed song on the album it doesn’t fall in to the same mediocre hole that “Thumbing My Way” did on “Riot Act”.
“Marker in the Sand” is one of three political song on show and it’s a hard-hitting one. “Misunderstanding, what original truth was” perhaps a jab at Bush’s reasons for waging war in the Asia; “expanding in a faith, but not in love” a shot at the neo-conservatives in the US Government.
He underlines the war with the lines “Now you got both sides claiming killing in God’s name/But god is nowhere to be found, conveniently” and makes a quite reasonable appeal “God, what do you say?”. Excellent tune that pushes all the right buttons.
Lead single “World Wide Suicide” struggles with midly-banal lyrics but the catchy rock-riff has a hook, no doubt. Another dead soldier (“Medals on a wooden mantle/Next to a handsome face”), a President who pushes on (“Writing checks that others pay”) and the rather controversial description of that man’s position: “Tell you to pray while the devil’s on his shoulder”.
“Parachutes” is a beautiful Beatles-esque number while “Army Reserve” is the story of a woman whose husband is gone to war (“She can feel this/War on her face”). She battles with the trauma of maybe having to tell her son where his Daddy is (“I’m not blind/I can see it coming/Looks like lightning/In my child’s eye”). Some of the lyrics are just amazing (“An empty chair where dad sits/How loud can silence get?”).
The album closes with the six minute-plus “Inside Job”. With elements of Pink Floyd in both sound and structure it tells of guitarist Mike McCready’s battle with drug and alcohol addiction (“Underneath this smile lies everything/All my hopes, anger, pride and shame”) and his determination to overcome (“I will not lose my faith/It’s an inside job today”). Remarkable.
Everything that this band touches turns to gold. If Pearl Jam wanted to be like U2, selling out massive arenas worldwide, they could be. To me they are without doubt on the same level as U2 when they were at their best – way ahead of them now in terms of songwriting. This is not quite as strong as “Riot Act” on initial listens but I’ve a feeling it’s a grower and could be recipient of another half-star in a month or two.
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