I also remember Easter (Thanksgiving?) of probably 1992, when, in a turn of events that I almost can't even believe happened, Vedder took over a local Long Island radio station called WDRE. He mumbled into a microphone, incomprehensibly for the most part, and he played songs by some of his favorite bands. I remember hearing stuff by the Frogs, the Pixies, Black Flag, maybe the Ramones, and definitely Daniel Johnston's cover of Yo La Tengo's "Speeding Motorcycle." Cobain's iconic t-shirt aside, I actually credit Eddie Vedder with first telling me about Daniel Johnston. If I'm not mistaken, he also played a live version of Pearl Jam covering "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" -- but he may have just sung it, a cappella, in the studio. So weird.
A year or so later, they would release Vs., which I suspect is actually the best album they've ever made, even though it lacks the landmark status of Ten. Then came Vitalogy, which my parents bought me for Christmas one year, and which I don't believe I've ever heard from start to finish. After that, I think came Yield. All I know about Yieldis that it had a pretty nice photo on the cover. Or, wait, did No Code come before Yield? I've definitely never heard No Code. Either way, I haven't listened to a new Pearl Jam record all the way through since 1993, right around the time the band quit making videos and embarked on a crusade against Ticketmaster--the two decisions that would keep them endeared to critics through a lean period when their fanbase and the world around them seemed to be in flux.
Then, eventually, the people who were getting jobs at magazines and newspapers all across the country were my age--people for whom Ten came along at the single most important time in a person's development--and the quiet respect that people always reserved for Pearl Jam started to be more noticeable. Suddenly, they stopped being a pretty decent band that had managed to hang around long after their moment had passed, and they became a rock and roll institution--a band that spit in the face of convention and did things on their own terms. And it is a valid argument: They've done things no band would ever dream of doing, even now--from not making videos and taking on Ticketmaster to releasing 72 "official bootlegs" over the course of a year, they have, to a certain extent, rewritten the rule book.
But still, you have to question the origins of their legacy. As people my age continue to wield some power, it's starting to feel distinctly like Pearl Jam is being given a pass because the idea of launching an attack against the band that rescued you from suburban hell and helped make you the person you are today isn't terribly appealing. (I also suspect people maintain a soft spot for Vedder because of the possibility, however unlikely, that he offers some indication of what Kurt Cobain would have been like had he still been alive.) You get the sense that, for all the praise that's routinely heaped upon Pearl Jam, very little of it actually has anything to do with the records they've made, and it's strange, if not exactly infuriating.
In an attempt to find something nice to say about Pearl Jam that doesn't have anything to do with 13 year old me (or you), I'm going to listen to the entirety of their new record, Backspacer, which was released yesterday. As you've probably read, it's only available at Target, certain independent record stores, and iTunes. I neither understand this decision nor find it very interesting. So, onto the music.
Track 1: Gonna See My Friend
Ooooh, those guitars sound great! Oh. Now Eddie Vedder's singing. He still sounds the same--sorta tuneless, if also predictably intense and engaged. Jeff Ament is awesome. So is whoever is Pearl Jam's drummer now. What was that one dude's name? Dave Abrusomething? I think someone else is singing at the end of this song, and it's terrible.
Track 2: Got Some
This is a pretty good vocal melody, but right around 17 seconds, Vedder commits the sin he's been guilty of most often in his career. After he delivers a line, and before he begins to deliver the next, he lets out this little moan. He's been doing this forever, and while I seem to remember it subsiding a bit when he started playing guitar, it's back, apparently, and more annoying than ever. The rest of the song is ok--I don't think he sounds very good singing at such a fast pace anymore. Of the few Pearl Jam songs I've heard since I stopped paying attention, I feel like there's a sweet spot for Vedder's voice, and this isn't it.
Track 3: The Fixer
Oh shit, there's the sweet spot. This is the first single, I think, and it's really great, aside from the stupid vocal ticks at 5 seconds and 9 seconds. We've got a moderately paced song here, and just 40 seconds in, Vedder's given us all his best moves. He delivers four lines that start out choppy, then end on a drawn out, steadily rising note that sounds tight even thought it shouldn't. Then he screams that really crazy scream that is probably his biggest strength, and eventually does the bent-not Buddy Holly thing, which is probably his second biggest strength. Y'all should download this.
Track 4: Johnny Guitar
First, very stupid name for a song. Second, I hope this is an attempt at Springsteen-style character sketch. And, well, it is, I guess. But, and there's just no other way to put this, it sounds really, really nerdy. The wah-wah pedal, the go-nowhere breakdown, the awkward delivery of the vocals... it's not good at all, but it's also not dialed in, which counts for something.
Track 5: Just Breathe
Oh man, do you remember the song "Breathe" from the Singles Soundtrack? So good. I don't know if this has become something they do regularly, but this song is mostly just Eddie Vedder and acoustic guitar, and, again, aside from some questionable vocal ticks--this time in the form of forced voice-cracks, ew--it's pretty nice. The arrangement gets a little ornate by the end, with strings and multiple vocal tracks, and it starts to feel a bit overwrought.
Track 6: Amongst the Waves
My heart is warmed to hear him singing about waves, now that I suddenly remember how much he talked about surfing when he first came onto the scene. Something's just not really working here, though. The song sounds kind of small and inconsequential, but not for lack of trying. It's the most aggressively lame guitar solo on the record so far, and while the melody has a few glorious moments, it just doesn't feel like much of anything is happening here.
Track 7: Unthought Known
Another dumb song-title, another melody so weak you'd miss it if you weren't paying really close attention. And still more voice-cracking, which strikes me as a really immature affectation. A brief moment of screaming reminds me that he's not screaming nearly enough. This song refuses to end. It's the longest on the record, and it has no business being.
Track 8: Supersonic
This is one of those tense little punkish songs they've always been pretty good but not great at. There's a breakdown that's pretty enjoyable, but the payoff when they come out of it is a letdown. Also, I just realized it's called Supersonic, and I'm struck by an image of Jeff Ament wearing a Sonics jersey. It's pretty gross.
Track 9: Speed of Sound
The worst song on the record, by far. An uninspired borderline ballad where everyone in the band seems completely bored. Except for Eddie Vedder, who just sounds sort of embarrassing, offering some of his worst lyrics yet. And this forced voice-cracking thing is becoming a huge problem. It's making me want to kill myself.
Track 10: Force of Nature
More wah-wah pedal. The lyrics don't fit into the melody quite right, leading to more awkward phrasing that's unbearably distracting. This is one of those songs where you can't even figure out what the rest of the band is doing, or what part of the song--verse, chorus, bridge--you're even listening to because the melody is so poorly defined.
Track 11: The End
Wasn't Eddie Vedder on that Across the Universe comp? Shouldn't he know there's a Beatles song called "The End" and that it's really awesome and giving your own song the same name is probably not a good idea? That gripe--and more annoying vocal shit--aside, it's a pretty nice song, either about wanting to be heard or wanting to grow old. Maybe both. I'm not sure.
The verdict? Well, remember how important Pearl Jam was to you when you were 13? I barely do.