How much it had to do with my abiding virginity and being insecure around the indie rockers in high school, I’m not sure. But in 1994, at 15, I disavowed Pearl Jam as my spread, though they were still on the toast of the town; Vitalogy not only sucked for reasons I still don’t understand (the disc charted a coupla tunes but included the sordid accordion-spawn “Bugs,” actually used to aurally haze frat pledges—a Columbia kid told me so), but “Spin the Black Circle” insisted on how cool vinyl was, and I didn’t have a record player (or any black circles, except under my eyes). How dare they align themselves with the Guided by Voices crowd! And make songs so utterly lacking in cathartic sing-along potential! Later PJ ushered in Days of the New, and Eddie Vedder’s creed was adopted by you-know-who, but that year it was Green Day who changed my life.
Thing was, Vedder moped over his Little Jack Horner history while Billie Joe played Johnny Rotten and plunged his stiff little fingers in the pop pie. Vedder was the real walking contradiction, his even flow inexplicably upset. Fans arrived like butterflies, so he chased them away, plum or no plum. But all along, in spite of spiting himself, Vedder has cooked up hummable hooks like Scott Weiland did spoons. “Light Years”—a chip off the old lilting corporate rock—is the best song on Pearl Jam’s latest, Binoral, er, Binaural, though 13 as-good tracks still wouldn’t add up to ’93’s Vs. (which had 12 tunes). That disc, like the ’91 debut, Ten (11 songs, ironically), rocked as long and hard as Sting (the five-hour lover, not singer), but since then the band’s run a little too deep. Vitalogy‘s avant-(blow)hard tendencies marked the beginning of the rend in the fabric PJ had pulled—as all great rock bands do—over the eyes of pop fans. No Code in 1996, while hardly great, didn’t grate. The glass was half-tuneful. (Or, as my friend Keith would say, six of one, half dozen of your mother.) By then only critics took notice ’cause the band was resting on moral laurels, eschewing videos and Ticketmaster shows. Come 1998’s Yield, Pearl Jam had yielded to corporate touring and TV interests and musically kowtowed to grunge grandpappy Neil Young’s legacy, ignoring their own entirely.
“I will scream my lungs out till it fills this room,” Vedder wailed in ’93, and he did. But the sound of his fury was smothered by his own fury at his sound, and his singing suffered. Nicking Stevie Nicks with a squeezed-shut throat shuffle, quiet Vedder had diarrhea of the brain and constipation of the mouth, while loud Vedder unspooled rough-hewn ribbons of regret to immeasurably better effect than his barking brethren. But the emotive dynamic was abandoned, antithetical as it was to the band’s all-grown-up proggy-protogrunge-as-postgrunge ethic; Vedder swallowed his heart and tore the tonsils off his sleeve.
Binaural‘s belting, let out a notch, loosens the rest of the band’s straight laces. “Light Years“ is “Daughter“ without her makeup; in seven regular years the band’s cultivated an organic studio sound—and one memorable melody! Inspiring, apparently: Pearl Jam suddenly seem to be giving a shit instead of just being full of it. Vedder croons “we were baht stones/yawr light made us stars” like he means it (which he couldn’t possibly, but whatever), and Mike McCready rips a sweet little solo so Eddie feels less alone. Better left alone is “Rival” ‘s sentiment, voiced over tinkling ivories: “Your disciples are riddled with metaphors, well-hung.” Hmmm. People cared about Pearl Jam when Pearl Jam seemed to care about people (not fulfilling subterranean impulses or speaking in diddly riddles); caring’s a trick PJ have always been able to turn, when they were up for it. These days, unfortunately, they only seem to manage for five minutes at a time.
Maybe that’s how they filched more than 15 of fame. If Kurt Cobain chose to burn out, Vedder looks to fade away ’cause he knows just how long it’ll take. “The idea of saviors has been built into the entire culture, beyond politics. We have learned to look to stars, leaders, experts in every field, thus surrendering our own strength, demeaning our own ability, obliterating our own selves”: Here lefty historian Howard Zinn rains on the charade that Pearl Jam have always loved to berate (Vedder’s Mos Def when it come to playa hating). But ultimately PJ just strike (to borrow a phrase from Soundgarden) a Christ-like pose: “I will stand, arms outstretched/ pretend I’m free to roam,” Vedder promised in closing Vs., ostensibly “Indifferent,” but in retrospect nakedly intent. And today, while he pledges “grievance to the flag,” the liner-note designers make sly reference to the now long-gone stretched syllables of way-back-when Ten (I’ll toast to that): “HHHAAVVEEE AAA DDRRIIINNKKK TTHHHEEEYYYRREEE BBUUYYIIINNGGG.”