A message of portent and hope in a time when we desperately need to understand both
The Lowdown: Nobody has a blueprint for going the distance as a rock and roll band. Those, like Pearl Jam, who can boast 30 years or more in the industry often take advantage of long hiatuses, escape to lower-profile side projects on occasion, or hoist the colors with only one or two original members.
Hell, Keith Richards even gave up smoking to keep the Stones rolling. After all, rock and roll, as a genre, has long championed burning out as opposed to fading away and, in the case of Pearl Jam heroes The Who, even wished for death before the stuffy, callous cadences of old age set in. To look around the band’s hometown of Seattle is a cruel reminder in and of itself of the genre’s frailty and ephemeral nature; Eddie Vedder has already outlived the frontmen of the three other major grunge bands — and did so before his 53rd birthday no less.
I’ve contended that the reason Pearl Jam remain in the present tense to either praise or kick around in reviews like this one is simple: they grew up.
This wasn’t a band immune to the mind-fuck that is overnight celebrity or the additional stresses of taking on a corporate Goliath on principle, nor were they able to entirely avoid the pitfalls of substance abuse and addiction, band member exits, notorious infighting, or clashes for creative control. (Lest we forget the time the band didn’t tell co-founder and bassist Jeff Ament that they were in the studio recording what would become No Code.)
At some point, and necessarily so, the band left that chaos behind them and channeled their hard-won brotherhood and energies into becoming the greatest touring band in rock and roll. So esteemed now are Pearl Jam’s live shows in our circles that Consequence of Sound named them our Band of the Year in 2018 — a year in which the group released a mere, forgettable single.
It’s been nearly seven years since we’ve received a proper studio album from Pearl Jam. While reviewing Lightning Bolt way back in 2013, I still remember joking that lead single “Mind Your Manners” came across a bit too polite and that the overall jolt delivered by the record was less like that of a lightning bolt and more like licking the terminal of a sapped triple A battery.
Cheap pokes, sure, but they didn’t feel as though aimed at our favorite rock and roll band in any real way. After all, 10 albums into their career, Pearl Jam weren’t wanting for hits, deep cuts, or much more than a little fresh blood for setlists. However, at that point, it became clear to me — and my two colleagues co-reviewing the album — that we had more or less dismissed Pearl Jam as a studio band, not expecting the group to ever rival their earlier work in either quality or passion.
While I can’t say that Lightning Bolt proved us wrong — even the band looks bored playing those songs live — something is indeed lost when the act of a band you love dropping a new record feels like an afterthought, just an excuse for another stint on the road.
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That’s why, despite the ominous, red EKG font on the cover art of Gigaton, Pearl Jam’s 11th studio album has me grinning more with each spin. While the planet may not be well and the message often dire and foreboding, the band themselves show zero signs of flat-lining. It’s been ages since Pearl Jam, the studio band, have come across as this dialed in, innovative, and sincere in their songwriting. Does it take a planet on a climatic knife’s edge and a democracy in peril to light that fire and sense of urgency in a band three decades in? One who could just as easily rest on their laurels as a peerless touring band? Maybe so. But, regardless of the precise catalyst, Pearl Jam have now brought us Gigaton — an album of thunder and tranquility, portent and hope — in a time when we desperately need to understand both.
The Good: “All the answers will be found/ In the mistakes that we have made…” elongates Vedder — not unlike triple-underlining a thesis in red — on the driving “Who Ever Said”. It’s the first Pearl Jam opener in several albums that feels less gateway and more speedway, a chugging — but not clean-running — beast that’s more interested in its own race than pacing the rest of the album. Just as you sense the song petering out, it forgoes the pit for several more laps that find Vedder flexing his throat and clutching his resolve. Likewise, standout second single “Superblood Wolfmoon” roams wild and unpredictable, growling, echoing — sleek and filthy at the same time thanks to Mike McCready’s needle-threading guitar heroics. “This life I love is going way too fast,” Vedder seethes in a fickle, esoteric bluster of love, loss, and hope that accidentally becomes an anthem without all the likely signposts of, say, “The Fixer”. It’s raw, unleashed, and unpredictable songwriting at its best.
So much care goes into Gigaton, building nuance, establishing ethos, and creating a unifying vibe. Little details like the rumbling, Mother Nature-like segues and how they bind the album make the idea of putting it on shuffle almost distasteful. Gigaton also offers a masterclass in the lost art of sequencing. While “Dance of the Clairvoyants” remains as baffling as any Pearl Jam lead single since “Who You Are”, the band’s take on danceable shotgun-shack music makes so much more sense as the trippy, unwinding comedown to the album’s relentless lead tracks. Similarly, the straight-ahead “Never Destination”, a full-throttled medley of other rock songs you’ve heard before, might have been scrapped (or, worse, ignored) on other albums but feels like the perfect rallying cry after the expansive “Seven O’Clock” leaves us assembling and searching for footholds in the ether as Vedder pleads for “all hands on deck.”
Fresh ideas abound nearly everywhere on Gigaton, gushing forth like the “meltwaters” seen on the album’s cover art. If “Dance of the Clairvoyants” felt too Talking Heads for some, the clashing “Quick Escape” actually swings harder on the back of Jeff Ament’s bass, drummer Matt Cameron’s mix of heavy hitting and fleet fills, and a mind-altering gust of swirling guitars and harmonies. The mood quickly turns inward on the methodical “It’s Alright”, replete with rhythmic drumming and atmospheric bleeps, a mounting call for self-maintenance and -preservation in times when “you tire of the game,” possibly the best advice any of us can receive in the overwhelming and petty era of Trump. A message much needed that should be well-heeded.
The Bad: Much of the success of Gigaton comes from Pearl Jam’s expertise in pacing a live set. There’s an art to it, and shifting from a rambunctious rocker like “Take the Long Way” to a final cooldown makes sense on paper. Unfortunately, this farewell features some of the album’s weakest, least exciting, writing, draws out at least two songs too long, and ends the album with little concrete to hold on to. The Stone Gossard-penned “Buckle Up” gently sways in as the album’s obvious outlier, a lullaby-like arrangement over ambling guitar that feels at odds with the song’s message if not always Vedder’s delivery. The acoustic “Comes Then Goes” does just what its title suggests without leaving any memorable impression. The record’s beautiful and airy closing tracks, “Retrograde” and the repurposed “River Cross”, offer much more in terms of message and ingenuity — Vedder’s soaring fade-out on the former and the latter’s use of pump organ stick out, in particular — but end proceedings on an intangible note that dissipates in the air and escapes through the listener’s fingers. It’s a missed opportunity following a record that takes advantage of every opportunity it earns.
The Verdict: “It’s going to take much more than ordinary love/ To lift this up,” Vedder notes late in the album. A couple verses later, he observes: “Hear the sound in the distance now/ Could be thunder or a crowd.” And that’s the gist of Gigaton. Times are difficult, but when are they not? The storm has positioned itself above us, black, pendulous, and, yes, dooming. But storms also pass and can be weathered. Gigaton is a call to cling to truth, love, and hope when a blinded world deems such ideas as cheap, naive, and impractical. What comes next — the wrath (thunder) or the cavarly (the crowd) — remains up to us. It’s not the first time Pearl Jam have dipped their flannel in political waters, but if there ever was a time to do so, now feels appropriate. It would be fitting to think that Gigaton — the band’s finest studio hour in a great deal of time — might come when the clouds loom darkest and most perilous.
Essential Tracks: “Superblood Wolfmoon”, “Quick Escape”, and “Retrograde”
First published at The Consequence of Sound – Tuesday March 24, 2020. See; https://consequenceofsound.net/2020/03/album-review-pearl-jam-gigaton/