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.