Out of the Big Four grunge acts of the 1990s — including Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden — Pearl Jam is the last to endure with its original leader. For singer Eddie Vedder, that’s because they’ve always held the music above interband drama, creative disagreements, and the pressure-cooker of fame.
“The pressure affects me, but it doesn’t hurt the music,” he told Kerrang! in 1993 while promoting their punchy, defensive second album Vs., featuring a confined angora goat on the cover. “It’s like a child, it’s like keeping that baby locked in a room where no one can get to it because it’s a fragile thing.”
Since their 1991 debut Ten, after three decades, four drummers, and countless weathered industry storms, Pearl Jam have proven their mettle as rock’s most bulletproof band — and their eleventh album, Gigaton, arrived today (Friday, March 27).
In the late 1980s, Gossard and Ament played in early grunge bands Green River and Mother Love Bone. After the latter band’s singer Andrew Wood died in 1990 of an overdose, they — along with guitarist Mike McCready — paid tribute to their fallen friend with the one-off band Temple of the Dog. Shortly after, the three dreamt up a new band together, first naming it Mookie Blaylock after the NBA point guard.
Mookie Blaylock’s early demo tape caught the ear of Vedder, then a San Diego surfer with a day job as a security guard. Impressed by his vocal and lyrical approach, the band flew him to Seattle, and he passed the audition along with drummer Dave Krusen.
Soon after the band entered London Bridge Studio in Seattle with producer Rick Parashar to record their debut album, clearer heads prevailed on the band name. They decided to paste Vedder’s great-grandmother’s name, Pearl, to “jam,” inspired by marathon performances at a Neil Young concert they attended. Still, they slipped in a Blaylock reference by naming the album Ten, a reference to his jersey number.
Elsewhere, “Even Flow” follows the experiences of a homeless man, “Why Go” is about a girl locked in a mental institution, and “Jeremy,” a heavy hitter on MTV in its day, was inspired by Jeremy Wade Delle, a real-life high school student who shot himself in front of his teacher in 1991. “The combining thread would be a lack of parental attention,” Vedder told Billboard that year of Ten‘s themes.
The album’s darkness could be off-putting if the band didn’t counterweigh it with an infectious, chest-beating sense of affirmation. McCready’s exhilarating guitar solo on “Alive,” which remains the finest he has ever recorded, signaled that Pearl Jam arrived fully-formed on Ten.
Ten exploded Pearl Jam into the mainstream, leaving the band punchy and apprehensive about the public attention. Drummer Dave Krusen was out before its release; Dave Abbruzzese replaced him, and O’Brien became their new producer. They had also developed a contrarian streak, refusing to release “Black” as a single despite pleas from Epic Records.
“Some songs just aren’t meant to be played between Hit No. 2 and Hit No. 3,” Vedder told Cameron Crowe for Rolling Stone in 1993 about the personal nature of his songwriting. “You start doing those things, you’ll crush it. That’s not why we wrote songs.” (Radio stations played “Black” anyway; it peaked at No. 3 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.)
True to its title and album art, their second album, Vs., is all about captivity, subjugation, and herd mentality. “I fucking hate it here,” Vedder told Crowe of Rolling Stone, the luxurious Marin County studio where they were booked to record. He opted to be uncomfortable, sleeping in his truck on the streets of San Francisco between sessions.
Vs. isn’t all peevish and petulant. “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” is a tender acoustic ballad about quietude and the passage of time, and the poignant rocker “Rearviewmirror” is a heart-tug on par with Foo Fighters’ “Everlong.”
Those two moments of introspection aside, the message of Vs. is understandable in any language: “Get out of my fucking face.”
Written between soundchecks on the Vs. tour and at a low ebb of band morale, Vitalogy (meaning “the study of life”) is the deepest, dankest, strangest album Pearl Jam ever made.
“Vitalogy was a little strained,” Brendan O’Brien remembered in the 2011 book Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. “I’m being polite — there was some imploding going on.” In 2019, McCready admitted to Rolling Stone that he was “drunk and making an ass of myself” during this time, explaining that he “didn’t know how to relate to Eddie.”
In the midst of interband turmoil, Vedder played more guitar and often wrote without outside input. “Spin the Black Circle” began as a fairly typical mid-tempo rocker by Gossard before Vedder added lyrics about the joy of vinyl records and cranked the tempo to a breakneck clip (Abbruzzese sounds like he’s hanging on for dear life).
As far as documenting a band losing its marbles, the album is a shoo-in for Pearl Jam’s version of Big Star‘s Third/Sister Lovers. But, much like that album, precious gems shine through Vitalogy‘s turbulent waters.
Pearl Jam had been kicking around “Better Man,” a vivid ballad about a woman in a bad relationship that Vedder wrote in high school, since the Vs.. sessions, when they canned it due to its accessibility. O’Brien said he “sabotaged” the song at first; at one point, Vedder tried to give it away to Chrissie Hynde to sing on a Greenpeace benefit record.
The band finally got “the take” on Vitalogy; today, it’s up there with their most cherished song. Above all, “Better Man” proves Vitalogy‘s anything-goes spirit wasn’t just about getting weird; it was about getting vulnerable.
Pearl Jam’s 1995 tour behind Vitalogy was a fiasco. Leading a public boycott against Ticketmaster, the band was forced to, as Ament put it, “[build] shows from the ground up, a new venue in every town.” At a Golden Gate Park show in front of 50,000, a food poisoning-stricken Vedder only managed seven songs.
After Vedder’s health took the band temporarily off the road, the band — with new drummer Jack Irons, who replaced a fired Abbruzzese — pieced together material from jam sessions at Chicago Recording Company.
“We were [all] really tired,” Irons told Modern Drummer in 1998. “It was difficult to tour and play these shows that were two or three hours long and then force ourselves to produce something in a studio.”
Elsewhere, Pearl Jam dabbles in Paul Simon-style worldbeat (“Who You Are”), Neil Young-style country rock (“Smile”), and an orchestrated piece with spoken word (“I’m Open”). “It’s called No Code because it’s full of code,” Vedder explained to Radio Fritz in 1996. “It’s misinformation.”
Lacking a stylistic magnetic north, No Code is nothing if not inconsistent, but the album’s quirky, playful vibe aged terrifically.
After veering off-center on Vitalogy and No Code, Yield is refreshingly user-friendly and back-to-basics. “Yield was a superfun record to make,” Ament told Spin in 2001. “And so much of it was Ed kind of sitting back.”
This pivot to band democracy was a needed change. Instead of wrestling for the controls, Vedder gave his bandmates a wide berth creatively. “I used to be afraid of him and not want to confront him on things,” McCready told Guitar World in 1998. “I think we’re all just getting over the whirlwind that happened to us.”
Not everything on the album works; the mawkish “Wishlist” has Vedder pining to be (among other things) a Christmas tree ornament, and the final third of the album practically slips by unnoticed. But when Yield hits, it hits: the gravity-defying “Given to Fly” gives “Better Man” a run for its money as the band’s finest song.
The most underrated Pearl Jam album by some margin, Binaural is their first with Matt Cameron of Soundgarden on drums (Irons left prior to the Yield tour in 1998 due to weariness with touring) and manages to capture some of that band’s blackened psychedelia in a bottle.
The band also opted to bring on Tchad Blake as the producer in lieu of O’Brien. “It just felt like it was time to try something new,” Gossard told Radio Rock Network about this decision in 2000. “It was nice to be able to have a different flavor in the studio.”
Blake’s calling card is binaural recording — e.g., using two mics to create 3-D stereophonic sound — hence the album title. Perhaps due to this, Binaural sounds uniquely rich and loamy, whether the band’s in rock attack mode (“Breakerfall,” “Gods’ Dice”) or Pink Floyd balladry mode (“Nothing As It Seems,” “Thin Air”).
Pearl Jam may have been chilly toward the final product, but Binaural deserves revisitation if only for the gorgeous, spacey “Light Years.” The song sounds as natural as breathing, like they’re feeling out the tune for the first time, eyeball-to-eyeball.
At its best, like on “Can’t Keep” and “Thumbing My Way,” Riot Act plumbs the cosmic dust of Binaural even deeper. At its worst, like on “Help Help” and “½ Full,” the album is leaden and ponderous, feeling twice as long as its 52-minute runtime.
McCready described Riot Act‘s sessions as “very intense and spiritual,” and it’s easy to hear that. “Love Boat Captain,” a despondent rocker a la Neil Young’s On the Beach, addresses the 2000 tragedy at Roskilde Festival in which a crowd crush during their set killed nine fans, an event that nearly ended the band.
“There’s been a lot of mortality,” Vedder told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2002. “Roskilde changed the shape of us as people, and our filter for seeing the world changed.” Perhaps informed by this chastened POV, “I Am Mine,” the best song on Riot Act is a declaration of self-ownership just as powerful as Jimi Hendrix Experience‘s “If 6 Was 9.”
Unfortunately, Riot Act‘s highlights are outnumbered by its speed bumps; hectoring songs about CEO salaries (“Green Disease”), and the policies of George W. Bush (“Bu$hleaguer”) could be given a pass if they had memorable melodies.
Despite promising moments, Riot Act ends up as the hangover after Binaural instead of the tantalizing creative progression it could have been.
After the bummed-out Riot Act, the band charges out of the gate renewed and refreshed on Pearl Jam. “I escaped it / A life wasted /I’m never going back again,” Vedder proclaims on the triumphal opener “Life Wasted,” like he’s escaped from the angel of death that claimed old friends.
“Life Wasted” was partly written by Vedder while driving home from Johnny Ramone’s funeral, and the punk firebrand’s fingerprints are all over Pearl Jam. Whereas Riot Act marinated in the post-9/11 mire, Pearl Jam is lively and in the clutch, its Bush-era bile ever more coal thrown on the fire.
Overlook that questionably Photoshopped drop shadow on the avocado, and Pearl Jam is the band’s best album in years.
A breezy, new-wave-influenced update on Pearl Jam’s sound, Backspacer arrived at the peak of Obama-era optimism. “I’ve tried, over the years, to be hopeful in the lyrics, and I think that’s going to be easier now,” Vedder told Rolling Stone in 2009, citing Guided by Voices as an inspiration for the album’s succinct track lengths.
The band also brought back Brendan O’Brien as their producer, citing his ability to “cut the songs up a little bit.” “In the past, Brendan would say, ‘It’s a great song, but I think you should do it in a different key,’ and we’d say no,” Vedder added. “But now that we’ve heard Bruce [Springsteen] has listened to his suggestions, I think we will too.”
Backspacer‘s only problems present themselves during the ballads; instead of being given the air they deserve, “Just Breathe” and “Speed of Sound” have compressed, flattened production that hardly suits this band.
Lightning Bolt is the only Pearl Jam album to lack a clear thesis or theme. Boasting the energy of the 2006 self-titled album but little of its topicality, the band seems to lack a clear adversary in the back half of the Obama years.
For its part, the album feels far wider-open than Backspacer: “Sirens” was inspired by Roger Waters‘ 2010-2013 The Wall Live tour and shares Pink Floyd’s stadium-sized angst. The dynamic “Lightning Bolt” shifts between moods with prog-rock expediency. “Pendulum,” which dates back to the Backspacer sessions, is as sparse as dub reggae.
Lightning Bolt will do in a pinch if you’re looking for meat-and-potatoes Pearl Jam, but it’s hard to endorse it above Yield, Binaural, or the self-titled album. As gamely as they channeled Dead Kennedys in the studio, the grunge veterans come across as overly content to mind their manners.
Gigaton is titled after a unit of measurement for melted Greenlandic and Antarctic sea ice. “This weight is equivalent to 100 million elephants or 6 million blue whales,” the band stated in a 2020 tweet, illustrating the urgency of the contemporary climate panic.
As far as the music, Gigaton isn’t that different from recent albums except for tighter songwriting, as if they crossbred the roominess of Lightning Bolt and the brevity of Backspacer.
“I think that [Vedder’s] mysticism and his way of using words and art and music is a powerful sort of tonic,” Gossard told Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Radio in 2020. “Underlying it all is going to continue to be a hopeful and beautiful but at times, tragic message.”
Like Lightning Bolt, the album ends with three ballads, but these are stormier and better than the last batch. “Comes Then Goes” deals with mile-a-minute emotions in the era of touch notification news; “Retrograde,” gradually becomes sucked into a psychedelic vacuum; and “River Cross” is a weatherbeaten pipe organ drone about rising water and government malfeasance.
Thirty years in, Pearl Jam still walks the long road with humor, bravado, and heart—and as the planet once again hangs on a precipice, we’ve arguably never needed them more.
In Partnership With UMG