I’ve been listening to Pearl Jam’s eponymous self titled release (is that redundant?) for a little while now, and I’m loving this one—easily their best since Yield, and possibly since Vs. Anyone that knows me knows I’m a Pearl Jam nut. So bear with me… or simply ignore this post. The review is tainted in ways, I suppose. I’m a tad obsessed with this record, I think.
Years ago Pearl Jam began to shift their style from the stadium anthems and cathartic “grunge rock” (whatever that was) which they became known for more towards their roots. The band are all huge music fans, with diverse influences from the Ramones to the Rolling Stones, the Who to Hendrix, and of course Neil Young. Their music if looked at carefully over the last several albums has reflected those roots more than any “Seattle Sound” (whatever that was, also). No where was this more apparent than when they released their b-sides collection Lost Dogs, which contained so many surprises of varying styles it makes you wonder what else they have sitting out there that might one day see the light of day. Their albums got a little random too, but showed those influences. This album just sounds like Pearl Jam, IMHO.
Self Titled Pearl Jam
Bottom line, this album has things that we haven’t heard from them in years. It’s them, and it feels like they’ve come home and are comfortable, which is probably why it’s called “Pearl Jam.” Lead guitarist Mike McCready is in top form with energy cutting loose at the end of songs, with a discipline that wasn’t there before, but it’s still him. Vedder hypnotically sings over the ends of songs like he used to as the band jams all out. The songs go places again—I love music which starts and finishes differently, taking you on a journey along the way. They used to be great at that, and had slacked off in recent years.
Which brings me to my next point. Vedder—back in top form as far as lyrics go. He’s never been brilliant. I liked some of the stuff on the last couple records, but this is great stuff. It is much more focused on ideas without being too obvious too, which I enjoy. He gives you things to think about and the perspectives are varied and frequently he alludes to things as opposed to hammering you. He uses repeating themes which go from song to song, each picking up where the previous left off.
The album is packed with present day observations, from the first single “World Wide Suicide” to “Marker in the Sand”, and “Army Reserve” Vedder is making statements. But it’s not totally beating you over the head either—a good friend of mine used to joke about not liking “music with a message.” Well, Pearl Jam’s music has always said things, and this album is no exception—however the themes subtly come and go like a classical composition and tell a story from a number of perspectives. It’s certainly is all about the world today, but it’s also about people living and reflecting on it. He could have easily ranted about ending wars, conservative politics, and the religious right, but here there is a subtly and depth here which is nice to see. I don’t think anyone would be offended ala “Bushleaguer”.
Lyrically there is disturbing imagery and difficult subjects brought up, but that’s typical (think Once, Alive, Why Go, Jeremy) of them. Even the album artwork (once you get passed the avocado—although depending on your perspective that might be disturbing) includes some disturbing images of shredded skin and heads resembling puzzle pieces missing and such. The artwork is also some of the first to ever include images of the band, although they’re not your averages pictures…
The album starts with “Life Wasted”, which lyrically introduces many of the themes which permeate the record. Presented is a perspective of an individual lecturing another who is hooked on being obsessed with death and negativity, untidy in the mind, which he equates to a home. The notion of a home and death and war are repeated over and over on the record.
“I seen the home inside your head,....
All locked doors and unmade beds.
Open sores unattended…”
The open sores reference almost alludes to a later song, “Comatose”. Also introduced is the first of many water references (in this cases, swimming a channel and starting over) which are in almost every single song on the record.
Musically, the textures in the guitars remind me a little of “Last Exit” (it’s also penned by Stone Gossard) however the song progresses into a full on jam by the end which is more reminiscent of “Go”. The character speaking says they’re never going back to this wasted life situation, however the very next song picks up the first single, “World Wide Suicide”.
World Wide Suicide
This song immediately plunges you into a war torn world and dead soldiers. The story chronicles someone (difficult to see—is it the same character as the previous song?) seeing a dead soldier in the paper and a president that trivializes that (knowing Vedder’s politics, one shouldn’t be surprised).
However, the story doesn’t fixate on that, it comments there must be another way, although it acknowledges that it’s a suicide, a man made situation:
“It’s a shame to awake in a world of pain
What does it mean when a war has taken over?
It’s the same everyday in a hell manmade
What can be saved, and who will be left to hold her?”
Here comes some of the first references, in addition to the person seeing the dead soldier, of the notion of loved ones left behind while soldiers are away from home. There’s also more water references, this time comparing the struggle to waves which don’t break.
The next song, which I honestly didn’t like at first and used to be called “Crapshoot Rapture”, is now called “Comatose”. Here is Vedder’s shrill screech ala “Blood”, over what I’ve come to like in the way of a cool set of riffs, loud, fast guitars, and an interesting repeating solo. There is a pretty cool progression of melodies which I’m starting to get into. From a perspective of a war torn world, this song conjures up images of a soldier in a coma, however you might wonder if it’s influenced by a Terri Schiavo type situation given Vedder’s preoccupation with current events.
There’s love and religious allusions, and additionally the notion of being “high above”:
“High above,... I’ll break the law,... if it’s illegal
to be in love,... leave the hatred,.. on the cross”
The lyrics in “Comatose” reference “no fear of falling”, and discuss several other notions of rising and falling, which set up many more themes to be repeated over the next few songs. Specifically, the next tune references falling over and over, “Severed Hand”. This is one of my favorites.
With a musical intro that builds until a cool repeating and sloppy guitar riff takes off, it features an interesting question / answer chorus where the character is asked over and over if they want to take a ride, and if they want more, maybe even 3 or 4, and the character responds with “Yeeeeaaaaahhh!!”. One assumes it’s a drug trip. It’s a really different song structure which I was a little confused by at first, but I’m loving it now. After the first chorus, there’s a jagged solo overlaid on top of the riff, which I enjoy. Finally there’s an extended bridge (at the end, really) which builds and grows until a McCready guitar solo finishes out the song.
Lyrically, I love this song. Following right after “Comatose” it’d be easy to take it on it’s face value of a drug trip, but I find myself wondering if the person in the coma is experiencing this, or has awoken and is now dealing with some personal demons, living on the edge of falling:
“I’ve no fear but for falling down
So look out below I am falling now
Oh please understand, I just need my friend
A way home”
Again a reference to some peace of mind and someone left at home. This of course contradicts the character in “Comatose” who has no fear of falling. Maybe he does now? It includes an awesome line about “seeing dragons” which I enjoy.
“Tried to walk found a severed hand
Recognized it by the wedding band…
I can’t close my eyes, cause I see the sound
In waves, lets me stay calm…
If I don’t lose control
Explore and not explode
What is human?... What is more?
I’ll answer this
When I get home”
Again, getting home to some peace of mind. Also, more waves and water. The severed hand implies a husband or wife lost and someone that might have exploded already, possibly in a war time situation.
Marker in the Sand
Next up is “Marker in the Sand”, which lyrically features discussions over truths and religion, two sides all fighting over their moral high ground. There’s also mention of “falling up somehow” with instructions to “do come down”. The sand reference might directly point to the Middle East, it’s hard to say, with the fighting and two sides being mentioned.
Musically, it’s a cool tune with some very cool rhythms from Matt Cameron on drums, and a really catchy melodic chorus which, the first time I heard it left me thinking it might be the next single.
“With the living, let,... what is living love
So unforgiving, yet,... needing forgiveness first
God, what do you say? What do you say?
There is a sickness,... a sickness coming over me
Like watching freedom,. being sucked straight out to sea
And the solution?.... Well, from me far would it be
But the delusion,.... is feeling dangerous to me
God, what do you say? Calling out. I’m calling you out.”
A lot there, but political and religious overtones abound and an admission that the voice has no solution. The end of the song trails off with a catchy melody, with Vedder’s hypnotic repeating over and over the “calling you out” lines.
“Parachutes” is a Beatles like acoustic number, which is cool and all, but sort of a lull in the storm. The song focuses on the story of the one building the home, and how things are missing: “all the dreams we shared and lights we turned on, but the house is getting dark.”
A war reference is directly made: “and war, break the sky and tell me what it’s for”. However, there’s a positive ending, noting “and love, what a different life had I not found this love with you.” Electric guitars again layer nicely here over top of the acoustic guitar.
The next song, “Unemployable”, musically sounds a lot like Document era R.E.M. to me, with Vedder singing in harmonies with backups. It’s sort of a cool choppy, crunchy guitar over heavy drums, with a soaring chorus. It tells the story of a guy who lost his job and has “thirty bills unpaid.” The character has a ring which says “Jesus saves”, implying that he’s part of a religious right that presumably might, from the liberal perspective, be voting against their best interests. He’s “near to death” but he sees the light and is “scared alive”.
Honestly, this song and the next are anomalies a little bit, not using all the same themes and devices of the others. The only thing which is used is the death one, however, and the difficulty being experienced by the main character is a rather Vedder like story (think Even Flow). It’s a cool song with a cool chorus, but I’m not sure where it fits in, other than the trials of life and perhaps, the sort of thing which might lead someone to enlist or be compelled to political action.
Having been “scared alive”, the next song rejoices in catching a “Big Wave”, and it just a fun rock tune. It has a lot of energy, although it breaks down towards the end which does sort of bum me out as the solos and whatnot at the end sort of fall apart a bit. The character talks about years of evolution and brings the wave and water themes to the forefront. It’s energizing. The character is obviously all about it—“Got me a big wave” being repeated quickly and in a catchy tune. Vedder being a surfer, go figure. However, the waves theme abounds and doesn’t stand out as out of place, and is in fact enjoyed here as a good thing. “Got me a ride, I got me a ride” the song ends and leads into the next, where the character is leaving…
The demo for “Gone” was actually a fan club single for 2005, which makes it interesting that it was included. Going with a Vedder theme which has been present for years, the notion of an escape, the character leaving, picking up right were the previous song ended saying that the character had a ride. This is also a slow, building song, and after the demo it does leave me a little flat, maybe because I’ve listened to it a bit much since then—I almost wish they’d done more with it for the album to freshen it up. I like the melodies though, and there’s some cool guitar treatments which are soft over top of a rhythmic strumming.
With the escape theme, Vedder brings it home today with gas prices, noting that:
“This American dream
I am disbelieving
When the gas in my tank
Feels like money in the bank
Gonna blow it all this time
Take me one last ride”
The ride, this time final, from the previous song comes in, and leaves me wondering if you thought too much—is the tank the gas tank or the kind used in war? The character says they’re letting go of it all here and ends with a single line “I am gone”.
The album comes full circle then, with “Wasted Reprise”, a short, ghostly organ piece with Vedder repeating the chorus from “Wasted Life” from the opening of the record. From this point forward, the perspective of the album notably shifts and the disturbed individuals are gone, just like the ending line from “Gone”. Here now we have those left behind, working to survive.
“Army Reserve” is beautiful music, with a slappy, funky bass (written by Jeff Ament, the bass player) and totally cool guitar sonically laced over top. Unfortunately, in my opinion Vedder’s chorus leaves a bit to be desired—which totally bums me out because I do enjoy the verses and music is very cool. This song almost had to be here though, switching the perspective back to the person left behind during wartime.
“An empty chair where dad sits
How loud can silence get?
And Mom, she reassures
To contain him
But it’s becoming a lie
She tells herself
And everyone else
Father is risking his life for our freedoms.”
This needs no explanation, but the death overtones come crashing down when the songs ends with the truly sad: “Darling you’ll save me if you save yourself”. Here the damage inflicted at home resonates.
The next song is a bluesy dance number, with a great vocal performance from Vedder and as always, an amazing guitar performance from McCready. This song builds slowly, and it is longer, but the payoff comes at the end with a beautiful musical climax well worth waiting for. The character dreams of their missing other half and mentioning being in bed with them, and open doors, all home references again. By the end, the character implores “I’ll be here, come back, come back.” Vedder then does a characteristically old school Pearl Jam no words but howl over top the building music, which is a total payoff for the long, slow number. I can’t wait to hear it live and know the whole audience will sing along.
It’s a really sad moment really, but the next song, “Inside Job” tries hard to repair the emotional damage. At first I thought it would be some conspiracy theory number, but its all about the inside of ourselves. Written by McCready, it’s got a bass, piano, and guitar Pink Floyd-like intro which slowly arrives as Vedder sings McCready’s lyrics in a very different, whispering, higher pitch, which works beautifully. Gossard and McCready’s guitars are soft and work very well together. While not written by Vedder, there is a door of possibilities reference which can be tied back to the home theme if you were really trying. A slow growing song, it builds until the character is reaffirming their faith in life and “human light”, moving on from the past.
Arguably a little cheesy, but after the emotional roller coaster that the album and preceding songs hit you with, it’s refreshing. I think it’s really their effort to come back to the message of “Wasted Life”, after what almost feels like it could be a lot of actual death.
Summing It Up
You can tell I’ve really picked this one apart—but I think it’s because this album is Pearl Jam’s first in years to really be a home run and hit me hard. I’ve enjoyed the last few, and they’ve played well live, and I’ve really gotten into them. But this album has awesome, relevant themes and the music is some of the best the band has produced in years. All the songs are very different from each other and resonate well one after the other. I love the way they lyrically intertwine ideas to make an album of songs which are energetic, intelligently put together, and musically diverse.
Yeah, I’d recommend it, but consider the source.
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