As Pearl Jam’s seminal debut album Ten reached its twenty-fifth anniversary I took it upon myself to revisit all of their studio output and thought about their collected offerings as a whole. A biography of a lifetime if you will.
Here are a few of my thoughts and observations from a career spanning three decades and inevitably continuing into a fourth.
There’s still no better album between Ten and VS
There’s an unfortunate phrase in music reviewing, “the difficult second album”. This was not an issue for Pearl Jam. Where Ten is arguably one of the greatest debut albums of all time, full of memorable songs that still entertain and don’t feel dated, it’s follow up VS is every bit as good as its predecessor. I’ve spoken to many people about this over the years and there’s never been a simple short answer to which is better. As much as I love songs like ‘Black’ or ‘Jeremy’, they are matched by brilliance such as ‘Daughter’, and ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’. I love them both so much that they’ve now merged in my mind into the best double album ever.
No Code is the weakest album by far
I used to argue this point with my best mate but having revisited the discography I find I need to agree. Perhaps it’s that so much better has come along since (original arguments would’ve been around the time of Yield or Binaural). It’s not a completely dead parrot as it does contain two great opening tracks in ‘Sometimes’ and ‘Hail Hail’ but contains little else to write home about. I’m not saying don’t listen to it again, but I wouldn’t rush to put it on if I had an itch for some Pearl Jam.
‘Hey Foxymophandlemama That’s Me’ (aka ‘Stupid Mop’) is the worst song they’ve ever done
Perhaps No Code‘s disappointment should’ve been foretold by the decision to close Vitalogy with the frankly appalling ‘Hey Foxymophandlmama, That’s Me’, rechristened as ‘Stupid Mop’ on later pressings. It’s a rambling waste of time never really forming into anything you could call a song. If you’re unfamiliar with it and listening to Vitalogy, just press stop at the end of the infinitely better ‘Immortality’.
Talkie ones are rubbish
My last negative observation is that the few songs which don’t feature proper singing are also not worth your time. Admittedly no discography escapes having a few stinkers but if you want me to take notice to politically charged lyrics then don’t make ‘Bu$hleager’ such a chore to listen to.
Some of the slow introspective ones are amazing
‘Indifference’ from VS, ‘Immortality’ from Vitalogy, ‘Nothing As It Seems’ from Binaural. These three songs in particular share a dark and sombre tone, soaked in unhappiness, and yet they are infinitely re-playable. If Last.fm had existed in the 90’s it would easily have recorded both ‘Indifference’ and ‘Immortality’ as my joint top listened songs. There’s something magical in sharing in what feels deeply personal, like staring directly into Eddie Vedder’s soul.
If Pearl Jam were a Pokémon it would be a water type
There’s a frequent surf/beach/watery vibe throughout Pearl Jam’s discography, such as ‘Oceans’ way back on Ten, ‘Big Wave’ from their eponymous release, and more recently Backspacer‘s ‘Amongst the Waves’, not to mention a couple of ukulele based tunes. Even when songs aren’t outwardly about life on the ocean wave that vibe is often there, highlighted well on latest releases Backspacer and Lightning Bolt. There’s possibly no song more overtly so than ‘Gremmie Out of Control’ which features on B-sides and rarities collection Lost Dogs. It’s unashamedly upbeat, groovy, laid back, and chilled all at the same time. Even though a gremmie is an inexperienced surfer, if this song was a person it would be a gnarly old leather skinned, sun-bleached dude. Aloha!
Backspacer and Lightning Bolt are brilliant back to back
Like Ten and VS there’s not a lot to separate the bands latest two releases. Thankfully that doesn’t mean they are repetitive, more like they share DNA like siblings. They are both great records in their own right but work particularly well as a pair when listened to back to back. No idea if this is deliberate but it was great fun to discover just how well they complement each other.
Pear Jam’s B-sides, rarities, and off cuts are better than some bands’ albums
I think the section title says it all really. Lost Dogs is superb collection of spare stuff that didn’t make the studio albums but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s certainly better than No Code is, that’s for sure. OK so it lacks the cohesion of an album that’s had its track listing well thought out, but it’s a cracking slice of entertainment featuring some great songs in a myriad of styles you may otherwise have missed. Importantly it also has ‘Last Kiss’.
‘Last Kiss’ would bring a tear to a glass eye
‘Last Kiss’ is a curious beast. On the surface it’s jolly little ditty with that West Coast laid back ambiance, yet underneath it’s a story of a car crash in which the subject shares the titular last kiss with his partner before she dies in his arms. The juxtaposition of the sorrowful tale and bubbly melody are a perfect blend which only lends to reinforcing the sadness and feeling of loss. Maybe I’m just getting old and sentimental but this one always plucks at my heart-strings.
Visual imagery brought on by the songs is superb
There’s a number of Pearl Jam songs that feel like a properly crafted short story, like a mini audio-book if you will. The bittersweet sadness of the aforementioned ‘Last Kiss’ is a perfect example as is the quiet tale of abuse and defiance of ‘Betterman’, as well as my all time personal favourite ‘Given to Fly’.
There’s something about that song that conjures up pictures in my mind so vividly that I’ve always wanted to turn it into a short film. Different people take different things from music and for me Pearl Jam deliver so many vibrant songs I’ve got an archive of unique music videos that exists only in my mind.
State of Love and Trust – the best non album song ever
With ten studio albums you would think that their best song would feature on one of them, right? One of their finest productions, ‘State of Love and Trust’ was originally the b-side to ‘Jeremy’ and notably appeared on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s 1992 movie Singles. The song is fast, fluid, jangly, and just plain rockin’, like the offspring of Ten and VS, the era from which it sprung. If you want to listen to it don’t be fooled by the remastered (read dicked about with) Rearviewmirror greatest hits collection version, go with the Singles soundtrack, it’s rougher but so much better.
Yellow Ledbetter has no words, at least they’re indecipherable by human ears
Linguists have mulled over this for two decades, but all have failed to decipher Vedder’s mumble in full effect. There are words, yes, and on occasion they actually sound like language, but I’ve no idea which one. Listen for yourself.