Pearl Jam grew from the remnants of Mother Love Bone, whose singer Andrew Wood overdosed. Rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament started a new band with Mike McCready on lead guitar and recruited surfer Eddie Vedder as their vocalist. The band have gone through a succession of drummers who have all influenced the group’s sound. Dave Krusen anchored the arena rock of 1991 debut Ten, Dave Abbruzzese’s busy style was highlighted in the aggressive Vs. and Vitalogy, Jack Irons helped facilitate the eclecticism of No Code, while Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron has been the drummer since 2000’s Binaural, and has contributed more as a songwriter than any of the other drummers.
It’s difficult to credit Pearl Jam as innovators, as they’ve always felt like a seventies stadium rock band at heart, but they’re a likeable band all the same. They’ve explored plenty of sonic territory while largely sticking to meat and potatoes rock. Fan opinion is often divided on their best work; many fans enjoy their first two albums and think they fell away afterwards. I favour 1996’s eclectic No Code, but don’t think Pearl Jam ever made a great album. It might well be worth using 2003’s double-disc Rearviewmirror (Greatest Hits 1991–2003) as a one-stop shopping solution to the band’s work.
http://www.acclaimedmusic.net/ lists Pearl Jam as the 14th most acclaimed act of the 1990s, which seems fair or even slightly generous. The emergence of Creed and other less talented but deep-throated pretenders has made Vedder’s baritone less unique. On their first couple of albums, their music feels like it’s aimed at spotty-faced, angst-ridden teenagers, and Pearl Jam started to grow up on 1994’s Vitalogy as Vedder took more control of the band.
Pearl Jam always looked uncomfortable as superstars, and throughout the 1990s gracefully exited from the mainstream, avoiding commercial success with ploys like not making music videos, including avant-garde tracks on their albums, and releasing an album without a bar code. 1998’s Yield was arguably Pearl Jam’s last gasp of cultural significance and since then they have continued to make respectable records, but it’s unlikely they’ll ever return as the mouthpiece of disaffected youth and instead they’ve been growing up alongside their audience. I haven’t checked in since 2006’s self-titled album, although I did enjoy Vedder’s 2007’s Into The Wild soundtrack more than most of the band’s studio albums.
Pearl Jam Album Reviews
Favourite Album: No Code
Overlooked Gem: Riot Act
For an album that surfaced in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind, Ten doesn’t sound much like grunge. It has an arena-rock quality, with a reverb-heavy production that sounds like the hair metal that the 1990s rockers were replacing. The songs on Ten began as instrumentals; guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were in Mother Love Bone, which disbanded after their singer overdosed on heroin; they had written most of the music for the record before they hooked up with the rest of the group.
Because the songs were initially instrumentals, there are plenty of memorable musical hooks: the vibrant introduction to ‘Alive’, the bass line of ‘Jeremy’, and the lovely verse melody of ‘Black’ are all fine examples. When vagrant surfer and service station attendant Eddie Vedder added lyrics about his personal angst -‘Alive’ is a biographical story about his difficult relationship with his father – the resulting band Pearl Jam was an instant success. There are strong songs – ‘Alive’ is a huge sounding anthem, ‘Black’ is sweet and melodic, and ‘Even Flow’ is driving with a soaring chorus melody – but I don’t find the lesser material memorable, and the second side is generally unremarkable.
Ten has some very assured songs, but Pearl Jam became more interesting as they matured and they had better-produced records.
Following on from the massive success of 1991’s Ten, Vs. finds Pearl Jam in a darker mood. Pearl Jam refused to produce music videos for the album, and the sheep on the cover is symbolic of their perception of themselves as prisoners. The production from Brendan O’Brien suits the band much better, giving them a rawer edge than the stadium rock of Ten. New drummer Dave Abbruzzese also gives the band a busier and heavier sound.
Despite the improved sound, the songs are often inconsequential, partly because they’re adolescent – Pearl Jam are trying to connect with teenagers here, not with grownups. Songs like ‘Leash’, ‘Animal’ and ‘Go’ have catchy riffs and intense performances, but the simple, repetitive lyrics make it difficult to take them seriously. ‘Rearviewmirror’ is more memorable with its catchy riff, while ‘Dissident’ stands out with its open and soaring melody. ‘Dissident’ also showcases Vedder as a storyteller, as do the acoustic songs ‘Daughter’ and ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’, and they’re the most effective pieces here.
Vs. is a step down in quality for Pearl Jam, but the better production and growing diversity do open up possibilities for their career.
Only a year after Vs., Vitalogy marks a huge step forward for Pearl Jam. Vedder started to assume more control over the band. Vitalogy continues the intensity of Vs., but the faster songs are more rooted in punk than anything they’d done previously, while the ballads are more intricate and interesting than their previous efforts. They also ostracised less open-minded fans with a penchant for experimental tracks on Vitalogy.
These experimental pieces include Vedder’s accordion showcase ‘Bugs’, to world music on ‘Aye Davanita’ and sound collage on ‘Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me’; while they’re interesting, they don’t stand up to repeated listening especially well, and they disrupt the flow of the album. But the fully-fledged songs are far more interesting than Pearl Jam’s previous work. Live staple ‘Corduroy’ is a catchy riff rocker, while ‘Tremor Christ’ and ‘Not For You’ are fast and aggressive. The ballads are also better ‘Immortality’ is sophisticated musically while ‘Better Man’ is emotionally nuanced. Deep cut ‘Nothing Man’ is one of my favourite Pearl Jam songs.
Pearl Jam lost plenty of fans with the more experimental pieces on Vitalogy, but it’s far more significant that they matured for the rest of the album.
After scaring off a large portion of their fan base with the experimental tracks on Vitalogy, Pearl Jam integrated the world sounds of that record into a more traditional song format on 1996’s No Code. Pearl Jam released the album without a bar-code, hence the title, and the album as a whole comes across as sombre and meditative.
Although Pearl Jam had previously shown a willingness to explore outside the boundaries of rock music, such as folk in ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’ or the Eastern tinges of ‘Aye Davanita’, on No Code almost every track is trying to capture something different, aided by the more eclectic style of new drummer Jack Irons.
Pearl Jam take on punk (the one minute ‘Lukin’) and psychedelia (‘Red Mosquito’), while ‘Who You Are’ matches Eastern trappings to a fine composition and ‘Off He Goes’ adds a country sheen to Vedder’s personal lyrics. A noticeable influence on the record is Neil Young, whom Pearl Jam recorded Mirrorball and Merkinball with the previous year; ‘Smile’ is inspired by Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’, while Vedder’s vocals creak charmingly on ‘Sometimes’. Guitarist Stone Gossard gets a turn with the microphone on the charming and lightweight ‘Mankind’, while there’s still conventional rock with the excellent ‘Hail, Hail’ and the brooding ‘Present Tense’.
It’s not perfect, but No Code ranks as Pearl Jam’s strongest album.
With Yield, Pearl Jam created their most accessible record since Ten. Despite its straightforward nature, Yield also feels like the completion of a retreat from the forefront of popular music. Throughout Pearl Jam’s early career, they evolve from a populist stadium band to likeable rock artisans. The band again worked with producer Brendan O’Brien. To take pressure off Vedder, other members of the group brought fully-written songs into the sessions. It’s the band’s last record with Jack Irons, who quit during the promotional tour.
Yield sounds lovely, but some of the material is too slight so it’s below the level of their best albums. There’s nothing particularly jarring; the experimental pieces (Jack Irons’ ‘o’ and ‘Push Me, Pull You’) fit in fine. ‘Given To Fly’ is one of the group’s finest efforts, even if it’s heavily inspired by Led Zeppelin’s ‘Going To California’. The plaintive ‘Wishlist’ is another highlight, with a memorable e-bow solo from Vedder himself, while ‘All Those Yesterdays’ is an enjoyable ballad that references The Beatles with a drawn-out pronunciation of “yesterdays”. The mid-tempo tunes that litter the album are all pretty, but the rockers aren’t as interesting or as hard-edged as their predecessors.
While Yield is not the most compelling album in Pearl Jam’s catalogue, it documents a comfortable transition into the group’s middle age.
Binaural is Pearl Jam’s first record with former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, who’s stayed a member of Pearl Jam ever since. Vedder suffered from writer’s block while making Binaural, referenced by a hidden track that features the sound of a typewriter. Binaural is a superficially unappealing record; the cover is dark, while the opening trifecta of harsh rockers don’t provide an accurate perception of the entire album. Coming after the prettiness of Yield, the harshness and claustrophobia found on much of Binaural is jarring.
But digging deeper into Binaural, there are plenty of examples of Pearl Jam’s now honed songcraft. ‘Sleight Of Hand’ is my favourite song of the album, with an atmospheric verse and a crashing chorus, while ‘Insignificance’ uses similar textures with a more jaded mood; both songs benefit from the claustrophobic mood of Binaural. There is very little uplifting material on Binaural; Vedder was going through a divorce, so it’s up to Ament (‘Nothing As It Seems’) and Gossard (“Thin Air’) to provide rare moments of optimism.
Binaural is one of my less favoured Pearl Jam albums, even if it’s hardly an outright failure; it’s bleak and can be a tough listen.
Riot Act, despite the nerdy cover art, is one of Pearl Jam’s stronger late-career efforts. While Eddie Vedder reasserts himself as the songwriting lynchpin on Riot Act, contributing key tracks such as the mystical opener ‘Can’t Keep’, the pretty ‘Thumbing My Way’, and ‘I Am Mine’, all of the members, apart from Mike McCready, contribute strong songs.
Matt Cameron in particular shines with ‘You Are’, creating the pulsing guitar sound by feeding it through a drum machine. Vedder has plenty on his mind as he remembers the Roskilde tragedy on ‘Love Boat Captain’ (“lost 9 friends we’ll never know”), continues his anti-wealth stance on the sixties throwback ‘Green Disease’, criticises the president on ‘Bushleaguer’, and often discusses religious beliefs such as in ‘Can’t Keep’. Jeff Ament also shines with ‘Help Help’, which strangely benefits from its repetitive inanity.
Riot Act isn’t necessarily an easy record, as the hooks are less obvious than on Ten or Yield, but there are plenty of good songs, even if the album drags a little at 55 minutes. Pearl Jam have seldom sounded so organised and coherent, and Riot Act is easily one of their stronger albums.
Pearl Jam is the group’s most aggressive album since Vitalogy, and it’s their most political as well, but it only warms up when it strays away from hard rock into more relaxed territory. The sound is thinner and more abrasive than usual, but it doesn’t necessarily suit a mature band that thrives on exploring interesting guitar textures and chord sequences.
Pearl Jam starts with a series of rockers that are self-consciously fast and abrasive, and it’s not until the fifth track that things loosen up and get more interesting. The McCready-written ‘Marker In The Sand’ opens out into a warm, jangly chorus (“So unforgiving/Yet needing forgiveness first”) that signals a change in pace. Matt Cameron, who came up with some of the best material on Riot Act, only gets one writing credit here, the hooky ‘Unemployable’, while an unusually prolific McCready is responsible for a lot of the record’s better songs. ‘Parachutes’ has a nice folk vibe, while ‘Gone’ is the most commercially viable song here with a big anthemic chorus and ‘Army Reserve’ bounces along on a nice, spiky guitar rhythm. Eddie Vedder emotes his way through the agreeably melodramatic ‘Come Back’, while the closing ‘Inside Job’ builds from gentle acoustic lament over its seven minutes.
Pearl Jam is another late-period Pearl Jam album that’s superior to Binaural, but inferior to Riot Act. There’s a limit to how many late period Pearl Jam albums I want cluttering my life, but if you’re a fan there’s more than enough to like here.
Into The Wild (Eddie Vedder)
Eddie Vedder’s first solo album is a set of low key songs for the movie Into The Wild, which documents a social misfit who gives away his worldly possessions to live in solitude in Alaska. It’s not hard to see how Vedder identified with the protagonist, given his constant railings against corporations and Bush in his Pearl Jam songs.
Vedder performs the album almost entirely solo, with minimum backup from singer-songwriter Jeffrey Hannan, who contributed the song ‘Society’, and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker. Most of the album is acoustic and folk-based, with Vedder playing the mandolin on the memorable ‘Rise’. At only thirty-three minutes the album maintains momentum with short songs – ‘No Ceiling’ packs two verses and two choruses into its ninety seconds, while ‘The Wolf’ is one and a half minutes of organ and wordless vocalising.
Into The Wild does feel slight, but at the same time it’s captivating and charming. At this point in Pearl Jam’s career, Vedder’s solo career seems more compelling than his band’s work, although I didn’t find his solo follow-up Ukulele Songs as interesting.
Ten Favourite Pearl Jam Songs
I Am Mine
Return to 1990s Album Reviews…