Is something wrong, she said
Well of course there is
You’re still alive, she said
Oh, and do I deserve to be
Is that the question
Pearl Jam, “Alive”
Recently a friend of ours, the marvelous and magnificent Moe, wrote a review of Pearl Jam’s latest release Lightning Bolt. The review isn’t tepid—it praises the album but concedes it is not the band’s greatest work—but it does inspire tepid feelings in me. And this is not because of the review; it is because of the band. A band that even my brother just took the time to consider more carefully.
I can’t think of many other bands that have been so successful for so long without impressing me (well, the Eagles, R.E.M.).
I can think of some pretty terrible bands that people seem to like regardless of all taste and reason (Maroon 5, Foo Fighters) but it is hard for me really to figure out the place that Pearl Jam should occupy. The band was huge in the early 1990s. It consciously and intentionally bowed out of MTV and its world but continued to release albums. I never listened to them. Was I wrong?
I am not completely alone in being confused about the attraction: LA Weekly lists Pearl Jam as one of the worst bands of all time describing the sound as “Boring, tepid, rehashed classic rock with a thin veneer of alt” . Now, while this declaration is in part meant just to raise some hackles and eyebrows, I have to add that it is rare that my brother and I completely agree in ignoring something. Generally, what I don’t care for, he will defend. And, generally, if we both ignore something, well…
But the litmus test for a band that transcends general mediocrity and confounds even those who would like to hate it is whether or not a majority of people who know of the band can identify a song they actually like by it despite whatever reservations or misgivings they have. I can think of at least five songs (maybe more) that I really do like (“Even Flow”, “Daughter”, “Better Man”, “Nothingman”, and Yellow Ledbetter”). So, I guess I need to revisit this.
I think what I like the most about Moe’s review is the central feeling that he is reviewing this album by this band because he feels he has something at stake, because he has made an emotional connection with the band, because somehow his identity is wrapped up in an entity he has absolutely no control over whatsoever. This is something we have to respect, regardless of just how we think feel about the band.
In the early 1990s there were two albums that everybody owned: Nirvana’s Nevermind an Pearl Jam’s Ten. The sudden and in retrospect viciously commercial success of Seattle grunge (you could buy t-shirts for both bands at the local mall in Maine) lumped the two bands together even if their sound was not really the same. Both bands had similar reactions to their fame—they were proverbial fish out of water. Pearl Jam won the ‘coveted’ MTV Music Video award for “Jeremy” and then withdrew from that world. Nirvana and its frontman publically struggled and withdrew in a different, more tragic way.
Every time I saw an Evenflow bottle or baby product when my children were infants I heard this song in my head.
Ten is just a rock album, but it is a pretty good rock album. (Seriously, brother, listen to the guitar riffs and solos on “Even Flow”, you’ll think they were almost cut and pasted from high crotch rock albums from the 1980s). The singles “Alive”, “Jeremy” and “Even Flow” are quintessential anthems that I heard hundreds of bands fail trying to imitate. The music is thick and messy; the themes are dark and depressing, but in a way they do well to evoke not just that strange in-between historical period, but also the doubt of late adolescence and early middle age. The only problem is that the band’s success came in part through this need to say something, a temptation they haven’t been able to resist.
I don’t want to compare the sound of Nirvana and Pearl Jam because the truth is I think that both bands present warmed-over rehashing of underground music from the 1980s. But where Nirvana never topped its early success and lost Cobain, Pearl Jam just kept going. Like most people my age, I dutifully bought Vs., an album in retrospect that is actually pretty good. Its single “Dissident” is fine in the Ten mode, an anthemic and political hit. “Daughter”, however, reflects a more personal and melodic approach—less prominent here are the big drums and screaming guitars that set Pearl Jam somewhat closer to Led Zeppelin than the Pixies (or Nirvana). But, shit, I’m a sucker for an acoustic guitar.
Along with “Jeremy” the vocals in this song have to be among the most imitated vocals of the 1990s.
One of the reasons that I think a lot of people tuned Pearl Jam out is that they became an issue band. In between the releases of Ten and Vitalogy the band spurned the very medium that gave it success (the music video), turned on its label (Epic) and started a war with Ticketmaster to reduce prices. To some fans, I am sure, these quixotic battles seemed noble; to others (yeah, me) they seemed like late-breaking and half-hearted attempts to embrace the DIY aesthetic and a anti-capitalist pose of a hardcore band like Fugazi.
In retrospect such dismissal is not fair. Pearl Jam became suddenly and powerfully famous. Unlike Fugazi and other Hardcore bands that always functioned below the mainstream radar, Pearl Jam had to reevaluate who they were on the fly. What I recognize now is that the band had the courage to slough off the very forces that helped to end Kurt Cobain’s life. And they’re still doing it.
I don’t know if this song is autobiographical. I think everyone I knew could in part write it into their own lives. This is a testament to a well-made piece of art.
While I bought the third album Vitalogy, by the time I got to college I had largely forgotten about Pearl Jam until I discovered that one of my floor-mates was almost pathologically obsessed with the band. Skinny EZ spent most of his free time copying and mailing Pearl Jam bootlegs (there were rules of which types of blank tapes to use, etiquette about shipping etc.). At the time I just rolled my eyes, but over the years I have never forgotten his dedication. If a band can inspire such loyalty from good and smart people, who am I to dismiss it?
Along with a million other shitty guitarists I learned how to play the beginning of this song. We used to pick out the opening riffs and laugh. I can’t hear this song without thinking of college, my friends, and how quickly the years pass by. Is this a credit to Pearl Jam?
When it comes down to it, judgments of quality and taste are not just idiosyncratic and subjective, they are also fleeting and inconsequential. We can sit privately in our own rooms listening to music and characterizing it in glowing or critical tones, but as my brother has lamented, music is something that is meant to be enjoyed together. Community is the critical element and essential piece that provides a song with a final and lasting impact on your life.
I can’t dislike Pearl Jam. I can’t even say that I don’t like Pearl Jam. I have to admit that the band has created songs that have become part of my life and that even given the choice I wouldn’t change this a bit. Thanks to my old friend Skinny EZ for being true to himself and to our new friend Moe for making me see something old with new eyes.