Pearl Jam’s self-titled, eighth studio album arrived in my mailbox a little over a week ago. After many spins of both the disk and the iPod’s hard drive, I can agree with the majority of professional reviewers: it’s a damn fine album. Calling it a return to form is problematic: it matches the intensity of those early albums, but it isn’t groundbreaking and genre-defining the way they were. I’ve always been a fan and thus have always found something positive in even their most uneven releases. But, the last two disks were not ones that stuck with me beyond the first month or so. Some of that had to do with differences in my life style and listening habits, but also because the albums just weren’t as strong as the early albums in Pearl Jam’s discography. This latest one, though, sounds like one that will stick with me for a long time.
For the bulk of PJ’s career, it was Eddie Vedder’s voice and lyrics that carried the band. The music was always good, and had improved tremendously over time. But you always listened to what Eddie was saying and how he said it first and foremost. The latest album, for the first time ever, is carried by the music. There are some good lyrics, notably those in “Unemployable” which has been hailed as a Springsteen-esque tale of the plights of the workin’ man. I can’t make a complete assessment yet because very few of the lyrics have stuck with me so far. Eddie, though, is back to singing with the power that made his voice the most compelling of the 90s. The meandering mumblings of recent albums have largely been left behind.
What makes the album, though, is the music. This is by far the band’s best effort as musicians. Every tune sound fully formed, the product of musicians totally in tune with each other and free to explore the studio space, as Bruce Dickinson would say. In each song, there’s a point where the music just takes over and I no longer care what Eddie is saying. Rather, his voice becomes another instrument that blends with the layers of guitars, Matt Cameron’s solid drumming, and Jeff Ament’s amazing bass play. The music is aggressive, muscular, and intense. The change is pronounced enough that I almost buy into the theories that the band intentionally held back on their final two albums under their Epic contract and saved the good stuff for their new label. Almost.
There are some first rate tracks on the disk. Opening single “World Wide Suicide” is as good as anything they’ve done since “Corduroy” in 1994. “Unemployable” grows and grows and grows on you until you can’t escape it. “Gone” fits into the PJ car song slot nicely: subdued and reflective where “Rearviewmirror” was angry and escapist and “MFC” was cathartic and joyous. The remarkable closing track, “Inside Job,” written by Mike McCready, sounds like nothing the band has ever done before. And unlike some of their “experimental” songs of the past, it works completely. Perhaps my favorite moment of the disk comes at the 6:09 mark of “Job.” The guitars kick in and Eddie unleashes a passionate, classic Vedder “YEEEEAAHHHH!!!” Unlike the early 90s “YEEEEAAHHH!!!!”s, though, this isn’t to fill space where his lyrics didn’t fit the music. It’s a genuine, emotional reaction to the music. In fact, the first time I heard it, I was ready to yell myself before he beat me to the punch. Finally, it’s notable that there are no throw-away tracks on this disk. Famously cranky, the band often puts one or two awful tracks on each disk to scare away the casual fans. Then, six months later, true fans are treated so wonderful B-sides that got cut in favor of the crap tracks (Or worse, they held onto the “lost” tracks for over a decade until releasing their phenomenal <a href=”http://www.pearljam.com/releases/release.php?release=LostDogs&type=None”>Lost Dogs</a> rarities compilation in ’03). No crap on this one, although I bet they’ve still got a few tasty B-sides stocked away somewhere.
If you never liked Pearl Jam, this album won’t change your mind about them. If you hung onto them deep into the 90s but then lost touch, this album might bring you back into the fold. And if you never lost the faith, your patience has been rewarded. Now if they’d just schedule a damn Indy date this year so I can see them…
(I’ve had thoughts for awhile about how to classify music fans based on how long they listened to Pearl Jam. It’s not quite mature, but hopefully I’ll stick with it and have that for you soon.)