Wednesday, May 17, 2006
‘Pearl Jam’: The Album Otherwise Known as ‘Avocado’
The most surprising aspect of Pearl Jam’s eponymous new album is that it’s so full of surprises, not the least of which the fact that it must now be considered in a conversation about the band’s best work. After 15 years, I didn’t think they could shock me anymore—and then they go and deliver their hardest rocking, most consistent release since “Ten,” way back in 1991.
Oh, I was so prepared to hate this record. Between 2002’s lackluster “Riot Act” and 2004’s hypocritical Vote For Change tour (wasn’t Ralph Nader on the ballot this time, too?), I had had about enough of Pearl Jam. I didn’t even listen to the band for the better part of a year and a half (which, for me, is a really, really long time) and had resigned myself to seeing them live and that’s about it.
But from the crunching lead riff of opener “Life Wasted” through the gorgeous, sweeping chords of finale “Inside Job” nearly 50 minutes later, this album (which fans nicknamed “Avocado” due to the ridiculous cover art) is nearly perfect. It’s a pinnacle release, one I didn’t think Pearl Jam was capable of anymore and that almost guarantees this band will be viable and relevant for years to come.
Whether intentional or not, “Avocado” is easily divided into three acts, beginning with a five-song assault unparalleled in the Pearl Jam catalog. The aforementioned “Life Wasted” sets both the musical and lyrical tone for the entire album, with its driving beat, killer guitar work by Stone Gossard, and images of a person fed up with himself and the world around him and looking for escape, release, and change. Eddie Vedder says this is not a concept album, per se, but nearly all of the record’s 13 tracks deal with this notion in one way or another.
Speaking of Eddie, he is both the most to blame for “Riot Act’s” relative failure and deserves much of the credit for “Pearl Jam’s” success. On the former, his mush-mouthed, world-weary vocal delivery drags down nearly every track; on the new album, he’s back to “Vitalogy”-era form, growling, howling, and stomping his way through the first five songs and taking flight on its second half. His bandmates readily admit Eddie’s the one that brings everyone together onstage, and the same could be said in the studio—whether he likes it or not, Vedder sets the tone, and the tone here is incendiary. Pearl Jam, contrary to popular belief, would probably argue they never went anywhere. Regardless, “Life Wasted” sends a clear signal right off the bat—no slow build to this record: We’re back.
Which brings us to “World Wide Suicide,” Pearl Jam’s most successful radio hit in years that occupies the No. 2 slot on “Avocado.” This song was a definite grower on me; when I first downloaded the single two months ago, my reaction was, and I quote, “meh.” I still would rank it at the bottom of this record, but its bouncy melody fits in perfectly with the uptempo vibe of Side 1 and thus, taken in context with the rest of this album, “World Wide Suicide” benefits tremendously and dutifully keeps the momentum going.
With the most obvious attack on the Bush administration on the entire album (“Medals on a wooden mantle. Next to a handsome face./That the president took for granted./Writing checks that others pay.), “Suicide” is as good a point as any to discuss the problem nipping at my heels when listening to this album: Politics. It’s no secret what side of the aisle Pearl Jam rolls with—and it hasn’t been a secret since the band’s inception. Eddie is the same guy now as the 20-something who stood on a stool in 1992 and wrote “Pro-choice” on his arm in big black letters during the taping for “MTV’s Unplugged”; this is the same band that played multiple Voters for Choice shows in the mid-’90s; the same frontman that stumped for Nader alongside Michael Moore in 2000; and the same band that once included an article by Noam Chomsky in its fan club newsletter. For those of us red-staters out there, who are we kidding? They’re not going to change who they are, and expecting them to is moronic.
No, the problem arrives when the message overrides the music, as it did for much of “Riot Act”; thankfully, that is largely not the case on “Pearl Jam.” If raging against war and President Bush yields these results, then so be it. I do find it ironic, though, that the most overtly partisan songs on the album (as in those that use the word “war”) are also the least interesting musically—“World Wide Suicide,” “Parachutes,” and “Army Reserve.”
Still, there’s enough on this record for everyone to find something. If nothing else, I can relate to this soundbite from Eddie during a recent interview: “It feels like the end of the world … and we’ve got a good seat.” More than liberal politics, this is the driving force behind “Pearl Jam."
Now, with that out of the way …
“Comatose” occupies the third slot on “Avocado” and it’s another of those “wow” moments. This is as punk-rock as Pearl Jam gets, and it’s a total punch in the gut, akin to “Spin the Black Circle,” “Blood,” or maybe what “Lukin” would sound like if it ran more than 62 seconds.
Up next is “Severed Hand,” one of the best songs on the album. A musical cousin to “Porch,” this could turn out to be one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs of all time, especially the final minute when Eddie straps on a guitar and adds to the clamor. Written soon after the 2000 Roskilde festival where nine people were crushed to death during the band’s set, “Severed Hand” gives voice to that inner demon that wants to say “screw it all, let’s get hammered.” Not exactly an uplifting message, I’ll grant you, but one everyone can relate to—and one that fits this aggressive song perfectly.
When the opening chords of “Marker in the Sand” kick in, at this point it seems impossible that the band could keep this momentum going for such an extended stretch. “Pearl Jam’s” opening quintuplet goes by in one furious blink, and before you know it you’re halfway through the album already. “Marker” finds Vedder trying to make sense of—and finding no answers in—the war of ideas between sides professing Christianity and Islam, yet demonstrating none of the tenets of those religions. In some of his most overtly spiritual lyrics to date, Vedder calls out to God, angry and pleading at the same time. What's really special about “Marker,” though, is the abrupt changes of pace between the tight verses and the more airy, lilting, Springsteen-esque chorus—again, more of those surprises that mark this entire record.
“Marker” is a signal that things are about to change on “Pearl Jam.” As the first act comes to a close, the quiet, acoustic “Parachutes” serves as its own marker, a transition into mellower territory for most of the remaining songs.
The second act could be heard as its own trilogy, the story of a man struggling to survive in a cutthroat world. In the fantastic R&B rocker “Unemployable,” the man with a “big gold ring that says ‘Jesus Saves’” has just been fired after a lifetime spent sacrificing “to a stranger’s bottom line.” “Unemployable” may have been the official b-side for “World Wide Suicide,” but this song is second to none. The lyrics go straight to the short list of Eddie’s best efforts, as anyone who’s ever worked a dead-end job for scumbag supervisors will want to put “Unemployable” on repeat. Consider this beautiful second verse, sung in a unique and infectious staccato rhythm:
“Well, his wife and kid are sleeping but he’s still awake
On his brain weighs the curse of thirty bills unpaid
Gets up, lights a cigarette he’s grown to hate
Thinking if he can’t sleep, how will he ever dream?”
But there’s a silver lining in this cloud. Getting fired has left him “scared alive,” so he seeks solace in the ocean scenes of “Big Wave,” Vedder and bassist Jeff Ament’s big hug to the surfing community (this song is destined to grace the soundtrack of some future beach movie). In this fun, throwaway rocker (similar in feel to “Gods Dice,” Jeff’s contribution to 2000’s “Binaural”), it’s not a stretch to think the character from “Unemployable” spends a day in the ocean to try and get his head straight before returning to town for the events of “Gone,” a song that mixes the theme of “MFC” with the soaring melody of “In Hiding,” two standout tracks from 1998’s “Yield.” Here our troubled soul has made up his mind:
“For the lights of this city
They have lost all feeling
Gonna leave em all behind me
Cause this time
By this point in the album—Song No. 9, for those keeping track at home—it’s almost hard for me to believe what I’m hearing. “Gone” would be a standout cut on any of the band’s previous albums, and here it’s almost buried by the flood of highlights before it and those that are about to follow it. And thus, “Gone” may just be the song that makes this entire record.
“Wasted Reprise,” is an organ-infused coda to the opening track and doubles as a fitting end to the previous trilogy, highlighting the sense of hope on this record and establishing a solid break for the last three songs on the album.
“Army Reserve” is without question my least favorite track on “Pearl Jam.” As the title suggests, it tells the story of a mother and child waiting at home for a father they hope will return from the war. Lyrically, this song is reminiscent of Springsteen’s “You’re Missing,” a poignant, heartbreaking cut from 2002’s “The Rising.” Although “You’re Missing” could obviously refer to a loved one lost in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, one of Springsteen’s gifts is turning the specific into the universal and thus his lamentation never sets itself so firmly in a time and a place as Vedder’s “Army Reserve.” With that comparison so indelible in my mind (“You’re Missing” is one of my favorite Springsteen songs), “Army Reserve” will always suffer. Not to mention the fact that, musically, it’s the least-interesting song on the album, the only track that sheds momentum in its chorus. This reminds me of “Cropduster” from “Riot Act”—not bad for the first couple listens, but it just doesn’t hold up. It’s one more protest song on a record that already has enough.
Thankfully, “Pearl Jam” concludes with the best one-two punch to end any of the band’s eight albums; on subsequent listens, these two songs just pull me all the way through to the end of the record, compelling me not to press stop. For a record chock-full of tremendous vocal performances, “Come Back” could be Eddie’s best, as he drifts into this twangy ballad that fits his baritone like a glove. Some have speculated this song was written for the late Johnny Ramone, a dear friend of Ed’s (and a staunch Republican, I might add—if he can get along with Ed, certainly I can, too), but THIS is universal writing at its best. From start to finish, “Come Back” is simply beautiful, on a level with “Black” and “Off He Goes.”
But on an album of surprises, “Pearl Jam” saves its best for last in the form of Mr. Michael McCready, who dominates this record from start to finish not only with his trademark soloing, but his (until this point) woefully untapped songwriting ability. On “Avocado,” his credits include “Comatose,” “Marker in the Sand,” “Unemployable,” “Come Back,” and “Inside Job,” which now rivals “Release” and “Indifference” as the best closer on a PJ album.
“Inside Job” starts out slow, with Gossard (I’m guessing) on rhythm acoustic guitar and presumably Mike or Eddie wielding an e-bow on an electric guitar. It’s dark and moody—and when keyboardist Boom Gaspar comes in on piano at 1:25, it becomes epic. McCready’s battle with alcohol and drug addiction is well documented; here, after finally winning that battle, he gets to say his piece with the first credited lyrics of his Pearl Jam career. Ed dons a voice similar to Springsteen’s Oakie persona to deliver the first two verses, as McCready shares what it means to live as a recovering addict:
“Underneath this smile lies everything
all my hopes, anger, pride and shame
Make yourself a pact, not to shut doors on the past
Just for today, … I am free”
And then, as McCready describes his reemergence into the “human light,” Matt Cameron kicks in on the drums at 3:39 and the music shifts into monster guitar chords (Mike’s favorite) and a heavenly vocal from Ed. While maybe not stellar in its individual parts, “Inside Job”—taken in context—adds up to one of Pearl Jam’s best songs and closes the band’s self-titled album on an unbelievably high note.
It’s impossible to say, at this early stage, where “Pearl Jam” will eventually rank in the group’s deep resume. Will it prove to have the perfect trifecta of “Given to Fly,” “Do the Evolution,” and “In Hiding” like “Yield”? Will its more experimental moments still sound as good a decade later like “No Code”? Will its uptempo rockers still get the blood flowing like “Vitalogy”? Will it fade into mediocrity with time like "Riot Act"? Regardless, this I know for sure: For now, “Avocado” sounds great at any time, in any situation (home, car, plane, office). Pearl Jam spent a decade tearing down the success they built so quickly; if they’re looking for a way to get some of it back, this record will do it or nothing will.
And, in typical Pearl Jam fashion, they cut no corners and give no quarter. What a tremendous achievement—not bad for a bunch of 40-somethings.