Pearl Jam have had a bizarre few years since their last album. They’ve become one of those bands who don’t really need to do the album/tour/album cycle anymore. When they do put out something new everyone gets scared it’s going to put another layer of grime (not the genre) over a once glittering body of work. Look, all I’m sayin’ is, not everyone wore their copies of Riot Act out. It’s safe to say reactions were mixed when they previewed a ‘new sound’ that was a lot like some older sounds of other bands on lead single Dance Of The Clairvoyants. I for one never listened to the anthemic but spotless grunge of Lightning Bolt and thought “This needs a little more Talking Heads doing white funk to really hit the spot”.
Who Ever Said seems to address these concerns. “Whoever said it’s all been said?” is the accusatory hook line. As an album opener, it’s a Brain of J/Breakerfall-standard rough houser. That sentence is deliberate in it’s comparisons. Ten to No Coders will read it one way, eternally plaid clad Backspacers will see it another. Personally, it’s frantic and earnest enough in its optimistic ire to pull me in. It’s followed by the apology for the debut single, Superblood Wolfmoon – a guitar string fanged beast of a track, slipping and sliding in a gory mess of it’s own making. In context after these two smash and grabs, Dance Of The Clairvoyants doesn’t sound like the crazy departure it did out on it’s own alone and vulnerable on the internet.
It works in the context of the album the same way Love Boat Captain or some of their previous flirtations with the groovy have done before. I’m not comparing it to Dirty Frank (peak Pearl Jam goes disco) but it sure holds its own alongside any of their live albums extended jams into prancier moments. Hey, it’s not like they haven’t experimented before. Come on! Hands up who has never skipped Bugs or some of that ukelele bobbins in the past?
Right. Creative directions tampered with, the album gets back to bid’ness with Quick Escape. Eddie does some classic Eddie hollering in place of a chorus on this one, though the donds here have to go to Matt Cameron’s drums. I mean it’s not like we had any doubt on his ability but ‘Oh Lordy Lordy!’ – this is a monster. By the time we get to the Crazy Horse-Weld inflected guitar solo, he’s like a runaway lava flow fighting a fishing village in it’s foothills.
There are a couple of ‘albumy’ stoners on the album. Alright is the first of these; probably sounds lovely in the right conditions. Seven O’ Clock is the moment Gigaton really earns it’s stripes for me. It’s a mid-tempo polemic with an urgency to Eddie’s delivery and a slow build. It’s got atmospheric reverby rhythm guitar and a big gap for some searing notes. It’s proper grown-up Pearl Jam, like Sirens on Lightning Bolt meets Sleight Of Hand from the Avacado album (is that what we call it?).
In times like these, I’m pleased to have shirty belters like Never Destination rub shoulders with mellow joints like Retrograde. In the past, I may have been on the side of the riffs first and I’d tolerate the droning on of the hippy inflections. As a proper middle-aged Pearl Jam fan tracks like Take The Long Way don’t sound like album filler anymore; they sound like honesty. The chanted “I’ll break through this ceiling” refrain is pretty powerful and, in contrast to the squelchy groove of Buckle Up, it’s even more potent.
Comes Then Goes is the final peak (three tracks before the end of the album). Its Zeppelin III acoustics invoke a beautiful folky melody. It makes sure every one stays chill before Retrograde echo-boxes us into River Cross. A lowkey ending on the rock shapes.
Things may feel a little predictable by this stage. He’s emoting and making all the grunge vowels over slow creeping organs and the odd bass notes. But try and deny that “Drifting off in the undertow, can’t spot a figure on dry land” moment. It’s pure Pearl Jam; pure grunge, just like Mama used to make. It’s got echos of “I’m going Ungreehhh” and it’s what I fucking need right now shut up in my house while it all goes to shit outside.