The Seattle rock band Pearl Jam were formed from the remnants of Mother Love Bone. Bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard recruited lead guitarist Mike McCready and vocalist Eddie Vedder, and Pearl Jam played their first show in October 1990.
1991’s debut album Ten was eventually a huge hit. Pearl Jam became a part of the big four grunge bands along with Alice in Chains, Nirvana, and Soundgarden. Kurt Cobain attacked Pearl Jam’s grunge credentials, claiming that Ten had too many guitar leads. Ten hasn’t aged gracefully, featuring a 1980s arena-rock production that betrays the band’s stadium rock influences like The Who and KISS. In 2009, the band released a remixed version of Ten.
1993’s sophomore record Vs. featured a tougher, more aggressive sound, and was also more diverse, notably the acoustic songs ‘Daughter’ and ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’. Vs. was another big seller for the band, although often the guitar riffs are the most memorable aspects of songs like ‘Animal’ and ‘Go’.
Vedder began to assert control of the band with 1994’s Vitalogy, playing guitar and leading the band towards punk. The best songs on Vitalogy, like ‘Immortality’, ‘Nothingman’, and ‘Corduroy’, are stronger than anything the band had released previously, but fans were dismayed by experimental pieces like the accordion-driven ‘Bugs’ and ‘Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me’.
Vs. and Vitalogy were both oppressively dark, but in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, 1996’s No Code feels like the band emerging from a dark tunnel. There are intense moments like ‘Habit’ and ‘Hail Hail’, but it touches on many moods.
The addition of Jack Irons on drums created my favourite Pearl Jam lineup – after the frenzied approach of Dave Abbruzzese, Irons gave the band more subtlety. There’s grungy rock, but there are hints of psychedelia like ‘Red Mosquito’, downbeat acoustic songs like ‘Off He Goes’, the excellent McCready composition ‘Present Tense’, and even a Stone Gossard vocal spotlight on ‘Mankind’.
Pearl Jam had recently collaborated with Neil Young on the Mirror Ball album and the Merkin Ball EP. There’s a tangible Neil Young influence on No Code; the way Vedder’s voice creaks on the opening ‘Sometimes’, while the harmonica of ‘Smile’ recalls Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’.
Why No Code is Pearl Jam’s Best Album
Rock music largely divided into two strands by end of the 1970s. On one side, there’s the commercially successful stadium rock, exemplified by bands like Journey and KISS. On the other, there’s critically acclaimed, but generally less commercially successful, alternative rock, which shies away from the production values of the mainstream and values experimentation and self-expression.
The grunge movement of the 1990s was a temporary merger of these two strands. Grunge bands often balanced a radio-friendly arena-rock sound, albeit with a few more rough edges than the mainstream rock of the 1980s, with lyrics that were introverted and morose. Of the big four Seattle grunge bands, Pearl Jam initially had the biggest tendency towards arena rock.
If you favour mainstream rock, you’ll probably prefer Ten and Vs.. If you prefer your music more eclectic, you’ll probably gravitate towards Vitalogy and No Code. I find the arena-rock production of Ten painfully dated, Vs. a collection of riffs looking for songs, while the experimental diversions on Vitalogy are distracting, leaving No Code as the winner from Pearl Jam’s early catalogue. Pearl Jam have continued as a band, and although I enjoy records like 1998’s Yield and 2002’s Riot Act, like most bands their strongest music was early in their career. Vedder’s soundtrack to Into The Wild is my favourite album from the Pearl Jam camp.
Who You Are
‘Who You Are’ was a left-field choice for first single for Pearl Jam. Vedder played electric sitar and Irons created the drum part from a Max Roach solo he heard at a drum workshop as a child. Vedder later admitted that ‘Who You Are’ was purposely chosen as a single to keep the size of Pearl Jam’s audience in check, but it still topped the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.
Stylistic diversions abound on No Code, but ‘Hail Hail’ is a straight ahead rock song with music written by Gossard, Ament, and McCready. Stylistically, it would have fitted onto Vs., even though it’s a more mature composition. Gossard later stated, “People say that No Code wasn’t like a rock record. The big comment you’d hear over and over again was ‘experimental record.’ But then you hear ‘Habit’ and ‘Hail, Hail’ and ‘Lukin’, and those songs are totally rock.”
‘Red Mosquito’ is a group composition, with Mike McCready’s prominent guitar lead imitating the sound of a mosquito. McCready produced the sound by using a Zippo lighter as a slide. The lyrics are about a 1995 concert where Vedder left the stage with food poisoning, replaced for the rest of the show by Neil Young.
Do The Experts Agree?
No Code generally received a positive reaction upon release. Rolling Stone’s David Fricke wrote, somewhat impenetrably, that No Code is “the kind of impulsive, quixotic, provocative ruckus that has become rare in a modern-rock mainstream.”
Still, I’m in the minority as a No Code supporter. No Code is ranked 4th (behind Pearl Jam’s first three albums) on two aggregation sites; Acclaimed Music and RateYourMusic.
Ten is the only Pearl Jam album featured in the original edition of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.