Artist Spotlight: Pearl Jam

What IS it about Pearl Jam? Their status as the number two most iconic, quintessential rock band of the 1990s is nearly undisputed (they never did quite eclipse the memory of Nirvana1), and with a string of immortal radio singles in their arsenal and, let’s be brutally honest here, a severe lack of competition in their genre, their legacy should be secure. But it’s never been quite that simple for Pearl Jam. Although their tremendous commercial success was almost instantaneous, their critical reception has been quite tepid at times, bordering on outright hostile at worst, until today each new release is met with resounding indifference. It’s weird to think of them as one of the most polarizing bands of all time considering how huge they were and still are, but I can’t think of any better way to summarize their lifespan.

But what is it specifically about this little group that rubs so many people the wrong way? As much as I’d like to pretend it’s some combination of their enormous popularity (familiarity breeding contempt), refusal to ever go away, questionable songwriting choices and a sometimes-offputting public image, we all know what the elephant in the room is here – it’s Eddie Vedder’s vocals. A marble-mouthed, bombastic baritone, seemingly all-powerful and yet strangely subdued at times, it inescapably ties the band to a particular moment in culture which everyone seems eager to forget. Who would’ve thought that a band that rose to prominence on a staunchly anti-fashion cultural movement would seem so utterly unfashionable 20+ years later?

Not that it was ever an easy road for them. Formed when an instrumental demo cut by Stone Gossard (guitar) and Jeff Ament (bass) made its way to Vedder’s hands via then-Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons (who would end up joining Pearl Jam himself later on), the band’s very inception was steeped in tragedy. The demo itself was the product of Gossard and Ament dipping their toes back into songwriting following the untimely death of their erstwhile bandmate Andrew Wood from Mother Love Bone. As he tells it, Eddie listened to the tracks, went surfing, and came back with a concept in mind for a 3-song cycle revolving around the absence and death of his father. He laid down his vocal tracks (for songs which would become “Alive,” “Once,” and “Footsteps”), sent the demo back to Gossard and Ament, and out of each group member’s shared sense of loss and yearning for catharsis, a major new artistic force was auspiciously born.

Ten (1991, A-) sounds almost otherworldly these days – it is essentially a recording from over 20 years ago that attempts to evoke the best hard rock music from 20 years before THAT. Although the band itself was later accused of attempting to ride Nirvana’s coattails even by Kurt himself, there’s no sense that anyone involved with this album even knows that “Seattle grunge” is a thing, much less that it’s about to become the biggest thing in rock going forward (despite Gossard and Ament’s status as partial forefathers of that entire scene in their other former band, Green River). Instead, what we have here is a collection of post-Aerosmith funk rock riffs that would fit in nicely alongside bands like Jane’s Addiction, Faith No More, and Living Colour, set to a bellowing man hollering strange little story fragments about homeless veterans and children speaking in class today. Pearl Jam definitely had a formula in these days, but when it worked, it actually DID feel like “classic rock from the future” (I assume that’s what they were going for) – a sort of updated take on the concerns and musical stylings of traditionalist acts like Neil Young, early Aerosmith, The Who, and U2.

Their debut languished on shelves for a couple of months before some little song called “Smells Like Teen Spirit” kickstarted interest in anything even remotely superficially similar, and almost overnight Pearl Jam delivered on their promise of “potential next big thing” and then some. I don’t want to get on some early-90s tangent here, but their timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The fact that they were just different enough to feel fresh (mainly due to Vedder’s endlessly unique voice) while still demonstrating an almost religious reverence to rock’s legendary avatars ensured that Nirvana’s success wasn’t going to be a fluke, and that the impending decade was going to spend the rest of its years attempting to recapture this sense of discovery, of change in the air. Actually, Pearl Jam extended the shelf life of alternative rock much further than it probably deserved, given that they sound like such revivalists on their debut. With the flashy soloing of Mike McCready (lead guitar), the one-and-done drumwork of Dave Krusen (who was replaced by Dave Abbruzzese before the album was even released) and the bong-rattling bass of Mel Schacher the decidedly anachronistic production from Rick Parashar, this album could have dropped at any point between about 1974 through 1989 and not sounded much out of place. As it was, they served as the rolling thunder to Nirvana’s bolt of lightning, and together they ignited the perfect storm that forever kicked 80s hair metal to the curb2, and proved there was a market for new bands and sounds, or at least that there was a new generation of music listeners who were eager to fill their own niche.

“Alive”, “Jeremy”, “Black”, “Even Flow” – I’ll assume you’re already familiar with these, given that they never, ever, ever stopped playing them on the radio throughout the whole rest of the decade and beyond. Still, listening to them all in a row like that, a few things stand out – first of all, Eddie can’t enunciate for shit. He slurs his syllables, flips back and forth from soft to loud seemingly at random, and always seems to end up howling some elongated wordless wails at some point. I don’t think anybody had ever heard anything quite like it at the time. As for the music in these songs (pretty much all written by some combination of Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament), they all differ from each other in strange ways structurally (as an example, “Even Flow” goes opening riff, verse, opening riff again, chorus, second verse, chorus, coda, guitar solo which peters out followed by the opening riff coming back in, final chorus and coda again) while sharing enough elements in common to identify the band’s style (they are all slow-to-mid-tempo songs with lots of guitar noodling and soaring choruses). Pearl Jam was clearly not leaving anything on the table with this first outing, and this determination and drive gives one the impression of a band that is unsure whether they’ll ever get a chance to record anything again.

To that end, 1993’s Vs. (B) sounds like a band who accidentally hit it big and is unsure exactly how they want to proceed (which was pretty much exactly what they were), now that this little recorded project has succeeded beyond any of their wildest dreams. They end up not really committing to any one approach in particular, while trying enough different things to have a safe haven to turn to if one of them happens to flop. Should they double down on the funk-rock thing? (“Go”, “Animal”, “Leash”) Should they be a sensitive acoustic folk band that goes out of its way to empathize with the female contingent of its audience? (“Daughter”, “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town”) Should they record the most driving, uptempo rock song they’ve yet attempted, achieving a nearly punk rock-level of energy and propulsion in the process? (“Rearviewmirror”) Should they become a weird/“experimental” preachy band who sound like they’re joking around a bit musically, while didactically delivering dead serious messages? (“W.M.A.”, “Glorified G”, “Rats”). I dunno. Do you like it? Vs. is the one time it sounds like Pearl Jam is trying to be all things to all people – simultaneously embracing their newfound popularity and actively fleeing from it “Rearviewmirror” style. But any concerns that there’s not a whole lot more where the passion and conviction of the first album came from should be decisively erased with one listen to the swooping, dive-bombing last 40 seconds of “Dissident”: while their struggle for a new direction was faltering, the band’s actual ensemble playing (assisted by new drummer Abbruzzese and more-or-less permanent producer Brendan O’Brien) may have just been hitting its stride. Unlike the first album, it doesn’t feel like there’s a whole lot of wasted notes here, or a lot of jamming for the sake of jamming.

Therefore, the next logical step for their third and strongest album, Vitalogy (1994, A), was to strip things down even more. At times, this minimalism starts to feel a bit maddening – “Not For You” and “Tremor Christ” in particular are certainly guilty of running their incredibly simplistic riffs into the ground. But on the more low-key songs, it really feels like they’re taking the time to let them breathe, and achieve their own sense of the grandiose organically, without forcing any unearned catharsis. “Nothingman”, “Immortality”, “Better Man” and “Corduroy” especially benefit greatly from this less-is-more approach. Elsewhere, the band takes the speedier, high-octane psuedo-punk rush of “Rearviewmirror” and runs with it on “Spin The Black Circle”, “Whipping”, “Last Exit” and “Satan’s Bed”. Pearl Jam has officially ditched the funk rock and revealed themselves to be a surprisingly versatile modern rock band, even indulging a few non-song throwaway tracks (including the overlong closer, which drags the album down if you let it). Everything that Pearl Jam was ever good at can be found here – I’d contend they’ve essentially remade this album over and over again ever since.

But that’s not really a fair statement, seeing how far No Code (1996, B-) goes out of its way to distance itself from anything they’d done before. Not that they’d ever had anything to do with “grunge” in the first place, but just in case you missed the point, here is a set of (mostly) quieter, contemplative, more thoughtful songs – where the primary moods on the previous albums consisted of angst, sorrow, and more angst, No Code is, improbably, the sound of a band actually finding peace with itself. Even the more upbeat “rocking” songs like “Hail, Hail” are comparatively looser and less leaden than similar tracks from their early albums. Jack Irons joins on drums this time out (Abbruzzese having gotten the boot for enjoying being in a famous rock band too much), and the arrival of this new style manifests as a pair of hippie-ish tribal drumming patterns in “Who You Are” and “In My Tree”. Although personally I start to miss the fire and electricity of the former Pearl Jam, I can’t claim this trade-off wasn’t worth it, if it’s what produced the likes of “Off He Goes”, “Present Tense” and the absolutely incredible “Red Mosquito” (maybe my favorite Pearl Jam song overall).

Apparently Pearl Jam themselves missed the old Pearl Jam too, because Yield (1998, B+) finds them almost shamelessly bringing back the arena-friendly choruses and straightforward soft-loud songwriting of the band who made Ten, while still retaining the sense of blissed-out calm and peace-with-oneself they achieved on the previous album. “Faithfull”, “Given To Fly”, “MFC” and “In Hiding” all would’ve fit right into the first two albums, were it not for the general positive vibes and angst-free presentation. Not that they’ve gone entirely soft yet – “Do The Evolution” is their most vicious (and hilarious) indictment of the general suckiness of humans yet, and toss-offs like “Red Dot”, “Push Me Pull Me” and “No Way” prove they’ve still got weirdness and sonic exploration to spare. I’d be remiss not to mention “Low Light” too, the type of gorgeous acoustic waltz-folk ballad that early Pearl Jam was simply not yet capable of, one that, dare I say, actually deserves comparisons to Neil Young himself.

As the decade that launched them to super-duperstardom drew to its close, Pearl Jam found ways to keep themselves relevant even as their album sales steadily declined – the much-publicized (and much-futile) battle with Ticketmaster earning them probably a little too much derision from a jadedly apolitical generation, a Grammy win (for “Spin The Black Circle”) which found Vedder remarking “I don’t know what this means. I guess it doesn’t mean anything”, and their first of many official live releases, Live On Two Legs (ungraded), hitting stores toward the end of 1998 for unknown reasons. Most notably, their contribution to the benefit album No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees (1999, ungraded), a draggy and boring-as-shit cover of the Cavaliers’ “Last Kiss”, of all things, inexplicably netted them their biggest hit since Ten. I guess by this point they’d might as well be an oldies act.

What the fuck is up with the track order on Binaural? (2000, B-) It starts with three uptempo rocking songs in a row, transitions into three increasingly slow songs, then kinda goes fast song-slow-song-fast song-slow song for the rest of the album. Here’s a pro tip, in case you haven’t heard a whole lot of albums: Most bands will try to avoid placing songs that are highly similar to each other too closely together in the album sequencing3. Without that kind of variation in song choice, you get an album where the individual tracks might be good, but listening to them all in a row automatically renders them less impressive. So half the album is already fighting an uphill battle to keep your attention, even if “Breakerfall”, “Grievance”, “Nothing As It Seems” and “Thin Air” all sound pretty damn great in a vacuum. Throw ’em on your mixtape. At least they’re still looking to expand their style somewhat, with the mantra-like “Of The Girl” and phased-out Soundgardenesque “Sleight Of Hand” steering them toward a more psychedelic direction. Little tweaks to otherwise straightforward songs like the clomping piano notes in “Rival” or the slightly-off timing of “Evacuation” (courtesy of former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron on his first tour of duty with the group) are much appreciated from a band which is already beginning to settle into a very familiar post-90s groove.

Tragedy struck on the Binaural tour, when nine audience members were trampled to death during Pearl Jam’s set at the Roskilde Festival, and the band found themselves at another crossroads. They took a year off, did some soul-searching, and returned as a (from here on out) tried-and-true, play-it-safe post-alternative rock group. Riot Act (2002, B-) is the first truly by-the-numbers Pearl Jam album. They still sound alright, and their songwriting hasn’t totally fallen off yet, but goddamn, have we heard this album before. The only notable update to their overall sound is the addition of one Boom Gaspar (keyboards), a Hawaiian musician who boosts “Love Boat Captain” with some soothing, droney organ. Otherwise, you’ve got your fast songs, your slow songs, one or two throughly accessible “left-field” experiments (vocal chant “Arc”, spoken word “Bushleauger”, timid/creepy-crawler “Help Help”), a handful of standouts (“You Are” has some of the coolest guitar sounds they’ve ever used, “1/2 Full” goes apeshit with the overblown soloing, “I Am Mine” does the nice minor-key to major-key thing well), and a distinct lack of hooks throughout.

Any band with a sufficiently rabid following will, over time, build up an entire catalog of unreleased and rare tracks, and Pearl Jam finally compiled theirs into the double-album set Lost Dogs (2003, B). Maybe a bit overindulgent (and inexplicably missing a couple of early scorchers like “State Of Love And Trust” and “I Got Id”), but at least fans would no longer have to overpay for the “Jeremy” import single just to own a copy of “Yellow Ledbetter”. If nothing else, this set presents a fascinating alternate history for Pearl Jam’s career – to think, they left off oddities like the meditative, dark dirges “Dead Man” and “Hard To Imagine”, surf guitar rock “Leavin’ Here” and weirdo serial-killer funk folk tale “Dirty Frank”, as well as warm, uplifting pop-rock songs like “Down” and “Undone”, any of which would have added much-needed variety and flavor to any of their albums. You can learn a lot about a band by what they leave off, sometimes.

Having released all of their previous albums on Epic, and with the alternative rock boom long since over with, Pearl Jam were absolutely free to embark on literally any career path of their choosing. So it’s too bad what they decided to do was sign with J Records and release an album called Pearl Jam 4 (2006, C+), containing some of their least inspired music yet. Half the songs sound like first drafts, with Vedder just intoning some vaguely melody-ish sounds, sans any of the fierceness or charisma that he displayed a full 15 years earlier. This applies to the majority of late-period Pearl Jam, but the best songs here are the slower/quieter ones – “Parachutes” is a beautiful lullaby-ish track, “Come Back” is the kind of heartfelt love ballad that Pearl Jam will probably always excel at, “Unemployable” mixes things up by throwing some actual goddamned HOOKS your way, and both “Gone” and “Inside Job” start gorgeously and build up into legitimately rousing anthems. The rest of the album is pretty much all upbeat rock tracks, and they’re pretty much all dogshit. Stop trying to be punk, guys. You’ve only ever been any good at it maybe once or twice before.

….Aaaaand, they didn’t get my memo. Backspacer (2009, C-), released through Mega-lo-Mart retailer Target, immediately kicks off with three truly AWFUL hard rock songs that constitute both the shittiest set of opening tracks AND the single worst run of songs they’ve ever done. Things start to turn around once we reach “Just Breathe” (a slower, quieter song – maybe lead with this next time?), then after a few pleasantly routine Pearl Jam-style tracks, they throw us an unexpected country-western-sounding ballad in “Speed Of Sound” (which has some GREAT-sounding piano and/or guitar notes in it during the break), and by the time “The End” plays the album out on a gracefully somber note, you’re almost convinced this album is actually better than it is. Nope. Play the first three tracks again, or better yet, don’t. All you’ll hear is a band sounding almost totally washed up. Good cover art though, courtesy of political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow.

The Cameron Crowe documentary Pearl Jam 20 came out in 2011, commemorating the, well, twenty years of the band’s existence, and it briefly reignited interest in the band as a legacy act, while more than doing justice to their improbable story. Maybe this piece of self-mythologizing motivated them to put a little more effort into the songwriting, or maybe they just got sick of playing so many shitty hard rock songs, but for whatever reason, Lightning Bolt (2013, B) turned out to be the most solid album they’ve release since the 90s. It’s not that these songs are great, necessarily – they’re just mostly avoiding the mistakes of past releases. There are fewer moments of needlessly aggressive rocking, more small sonic variations to keep things interesting (“Infallible” is probably as close as we’ll ever get to a Talking Heads imitation from these guys), and generally more of the band playing to their strengths, and actually exercising a modicum of quality control than they have in years. Vedder is still mailing in his vocals for the most part, but the overall construction of these tracks shows a band that is actually striving, in good faith, to make the best album they can at this stage in their careers. I’ll take this Pearl Jam any day – not every track will stay with you, but you’re bound to hear at least a few and think “Wow, Pearl Jam still sound pretty good 22 years in,” and the impression the album leaves you with is one of a band that may very well deserve their iconic status after all.

Pearl Jam were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame (for whatever that’s worth) in early 2017 5 and it’s been a good quarter-century since they still had anything to prove to anyone. While their peers flamed out, split up only to reform long after their sell-by date, and in worst-case scenarios, died at tragically early ages, they soldiered on, hewing to the old-school template that brought them so much early success, and ultimately leaving their mark as the last of a type – a band who skyrocketed to undreamed-of heights of fame and made a huge impact on the culture, then somehow managed to keep their shit together, enduring no end of highs and lows along the way, but eventually hanging on long enough to become an institution. Even if their music hasn’t always resonated, it’s difficult not to respect their work ethic and enduring popularity, especially considering that we’ll probably never see a band like them again. You could do a lot worse, for the end of an era.