About ten years ago, there was a sickening thud heard around the musical world. It was the sound of Pearl Jam, one of the most popular and influential bands of their time, falling off the mainstream map and landing awkwardly in a strange world where the scope of their existence was confined to a small, cult-like fan base.
After releasing 2000’s Binaural and 2002’s Riot Act, two critically and commercially irrelevant records, the band found an endless supply of inspiration in the world’s current state of disarray and spent nearly four years crafting their eighth studio album.
So the question is “Should people care about this record?” The answer, resoundingly, is yes.
Pearl Jam, once so popular in the early 90s and then so equally unpopular in the early 00’s, has returned with a record so strong, both musically and lyrically, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if they found themselves once again at the top of the musical totem pole.
From the opening guitar crunch of “Life Wasted” to the restrained delivery of album closer, “Inside Job,” Pearl Jam is a 50-minute barrage of raw emotion, complete with lead singer Eddie Vedder’s contemplative (and sometimes indecipherable) lyrics. Love him or hate him, Vedder has an uncanny ability to get under the skin and invoke some sort of reaction whether or not you agree with his outspoken political views.
Unlike some bands, Pearl Jam tends to create their albums live, meaning they all get together in one space and record the songs as opposed to having each member record his part separately. The result is a loose but urgent vibe that suits the band and the new songs perfectly.
It helps that they’ve been playing together for over fifteen years and have the ability to read each other like a book. Guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready are so seamless in their six-string interplay that it’s nearly impossible to tell which one of them is carrying the rhythm (usually Gossard) and who’s soloing like a maniac (usually McCready).
The album’s first half is full of arena-ready rockers. The first single, “World Wide Suicide,” a sword-tongued diatribe against the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, is one of Vedder’s best compositions in recent memory. Barking with fury, Vedder notes, It’s a shame / to awake in a world of pain before asking: what does it mean/when a war has taken over?
The distortion-heavy “Comatose” is barely two minutes in length but packs more punk power than other songs twice as long. “Severed Hand,” a funky, Vedder-written tune about the search for enlightenment, features a transcendent intro before ripping into a guitar hook reminiscent of another PJ song, “Porch.”
The middle of the album slows down a bit but is no less powerful. “Marker in the Sand” finds Vedder wondering how organized religion got so far off its mission of love. The Gossard-penned “Parachutes” and the fantastic “Unemployable” serve as great transitions between the album’s more rocked-out first half and largely introspective and quieter second half.
Starting off that second half is “Gone,” a song that Vedder wrote and performed solo while on tour last year. Since then the song has been turned into a whole band affair and the effects are stunning. Over the dark opening chords, Vedder describes a man who is a slave to the world around him, someone who desperately wants to get out of where he is.When the gas in my tank / feels like money in the bank / gonna blow it all this time / take me one last ride, Vedder sings softly before the song explodes into the chorus.
After a brief organ-driven reprise of “Life Wasted,” the album closes with three of its strongest tracks. “Army Reserve,” deals with a mother and son left behind by a soldier who’s been sent off to war. Written by bassist Jeff Ament and Vedder, the song tells of a woman trying to be strong for her son while at the same time questioning why her husband isn’t at home with them. She fears that her family that will never be together again.
“Come Back” could best be described as Pearl Jam’s attempt at soul music. Drummer Matt Cameron and Ament keep the song afloat while Vedder croons about the loss of a loved one. Never has Pearl Jam so successfully left the comfort of their trademark sound and created something as beautiful as this. As the song ends, with Vedder screaming, I’ll be here / come back / come back, there is little doubt that this song will be a huge hit on the upcoming tour; one of those songs that will elicit thousands of fans to raise their voice and lighters in unison.
The album comes to a close with “Inside Job,” the first Pearl Jam song written by Mike McCready. And seriously, you’ll wonder what took him so long after listening to this. Starting with a beautiful ambient intro and then sliding into an acoustic guitar, “Inside Job” is one of the band’s most musically complex songs. There’s even some piano thrown into the mix. For a record as lyrically dark as Pearl Jam is, “Inside Job” manages to do the unthinkable—end the album on a high note.
I will not lose my faith / it’s an inside job today / holding on, the light of night / on my knees to rise and fix my broken soul, Vedder sings over Ament’s thumping bass. The song is a testament to our ability to be a positive force if we want to be, and it’s great to see the album close with such a strong message.
Only time will tell if this record catapults the band back into the musical forefront but one thing is certain: The band has never released an album so deserving of respect from the masses. From the break-neck fury of its opening tracks to the quiet beauty of its ending, Pearl Jam is an album that has the power to move its listener.