Last Thursday I ended up driving all over southern Mass. (long story), but it afforded me the opportunity to give Pearl Jam’s new self-titled album the kind of listen it deserves. Ever since Vs., I’ve never liked a Pearl Jam album on the first run-through. Ever. Some are easier to love than others—Yield and Binaural, for instance—but every time, I go in hoping against hope that PJ will have taken a page from U2 and put out a really great-sounding, commercial album; and instead I discover they’ve put out a thoughtful, artistic record with some great tracks, but rarely a single even close to “Even Flow” or “Alive” (though their two biggest hits ever were actually “Better Man” off Vitalogy and their cover of the creepy sixties hit “Last Kiss”).
In any event, I listened to the album twice over the course of my journey last week, and over the next few days I found some of the riffs and lyrics echoing in my head; a sure sign that I had gotten used to the album. I never know whether I like an album by PJ or anyone else on the first listen; I have to get to know it, like a new friend.
Pearl Jam is indeed a more aggressive album than much of their fare since Vs., but I wouldn’t say it rocks more than, say, Yield. My cousin Mike, a diehard PJ fan, said the album reminded him of Vitalogy. I can hear that in there, especially with “Comatose,” whose verse riff reminds me of the chorus riff for “Spin the Black Circle.” Also, the hook for “Severed Hand” sounds a little too much like the opening of “Porch” off Ten. Where are the spine-tinglingly epic hooks of “Alive” or “Even Flow” or “Jeremy” or “Rearviewmirror”? Even this “aggressive” album feels subdued next to their first two.
But a lot of the commercial, metal edge I’m looking for is in the mixing, not the music (for example, had Binaural been entirely mixed by Brendan O’Brien instead of Tchad Blake—and heavily promoted—I think it could have been a monster hit…for pete’s sake, “Breakerfall” wasn’t even a single!). Now that I’ve listened to Pearl Jam a few times and gotten over my initial disappointment that Pearl Jam again refused to clone Ten, I think this is one of their better albums. It quickly leap-frogged Vitalogy, No Code and Riot Act in my estimation, and it may even beat Yield to be my number two favorite (after Binaural; and I’m not counting Ten or Vs., because they’re classics and I’ve listened to those albums a million times).
As for the songs themselves: let’s see. “Life Wasted” is a good, straightforward rocker, as is “World Wide Suicide.” “Comatose” won me over with the riff during the line “Comatose with no fear of falling,” and once I got past the similarities with “Porch,” “Severed Hand” is definitely a lot of fun. “Markers in the Sand” is my current skipped track. I’m not sure what it is; the tempo is all wrong, the riff is a little wimpy; it’s just not my thing. However, I love the Beatles-esque “Parachutes.” Definitely one of PJ’s catchier tunes of late.
I didn’t like “Unemployable” when I first heard it on the radio, but coming after “Parachutes” seems just right, and I like the story Vedder tells. “Big Wave” is a wonderfully dumb rocker, a rarity for Pearl Jam, and it may be my favorite on the album. I could do without the “Wasted Reprise”; I wish Pearl Jam would stop with these indulgences on their studio albums (“Aye Davanita,” “The Color Red,” and so forth). “Army Reserve” was another one I had to get used to, but the lyrics won me over. Then out of nowhere is “Come Back,” a bluesy torch song by lead guitarist Mike McCready and Vedder. The album wraps up with “Inside Job,” which I haven’t really heard often enough to develop an opinion on.
For this fan, Pearl Jam is definitely an improvement over Riot Act, but it’s not quite as good as Binaural. Still, it’s great to have some new Pearl Jam, and even better, I get to see them at the whatever-they’re-calling-it-now Garden next week…
EDIT: I forgot about “Gone.” Another one I wasn’t sure about initially, but has now grown on me…I like the subtle opening with the build-up to the chorus. A depressing song, though.
I’m also wondering what the next single will be. I think it should be “Parachutes,” or maybe “Gone,” but for some reason, my instinct tells me it will be “Army Reserve.” PJ doesn’t seem to pick the most radio-friendly singles, for whatever reason. “World Wide Suicide” was a better choice than usual.