In order to override rhetoric, inspiration needs to be mined from the underlying, often reactionary and always hard-coded images or feelings that transcend external expression. It’s why Che Guevara has been so successful in the T-shirt format his face embodies idealism while his words embody communism. And it’s why Pearl Jam’s self-titled eighth studio album strikes with a magnificent urgency. Structurally it’s no different from their other post-No Code albums: classic ’70s arena-rock anthems, shotgun guitar licks, bouncing drum echo and, of course, Eddie Vedder’s defining baritone. The difference here is that Vedder’s fire-eyed passion is reigned-in rather than pushed downhill; his vision of chaos and frustration streamlined and tightened to avoid the ham-handed moments that plagued 2002’s Riot Act (see “Bushleaguer”). The result is something that has eluded Peal Jam since at least 1999: a radio mega-hit (“World Wide Suicide”) and a buzz generated outside of the devout, self-cultivated subculture of fans they’ve maintained through a streak of personal, extended live shows and all manner of capitalistic wizardry.
Pearl Jam shuts out the cable-news shouting matches to wander doe-eyed through the streets, incorporating a philosophy rather than pushing one. Vedder buries himself in a string of intriguing, alternate narratives — “Gone” is a Springsteenian no-collar rocker and “Army Reserve” is taken from the perspective of a housewife trying to hold on while her husband is off at war (“I can see it coming/ Looks like lightning in my child’s eye”). Lyrically the album is abstract enough. There are a few direct jabs, but Vedder has never had a problem pointing the barrel back at himself. “Marker in the Sand” is one of the album’s most memorable melodies, walking a “tightrope high over moral ground” as Vedder wonders if he is capable of forgiveness — or perhaps, more important, if forgiveness is something that he wants to be capable of.
This is probably the first album to be directly influenced by Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 masterpiece The Woods. Vedder interviewed the band for a Magnet piece, and his words cracked with an urgency to get in the studio and create something with a raw, live energy. Those that have clamored for a return to that old Pearl Jam sound will find plenty here; the lightning-quick rise and fall of “Comatose” recalls “Spin the Black Circle,” and the surf-punk “Big Wave” is the flipside to “Oceans.” Mike McCready and Stone Gossard’s guitar cuts run tight through Matt Cameron’s backbeat on “Severed Hand.” Vedder’s distinctive vocal patterns find their escape here through a series of beeps and bumps that builds to a fiendishly clever, full-tilt sidewalk stumble that realizes what it means to tie one on. Closer “Inside Job” is an introspective, McCready-penned extended jam that confirms these Gen-Xers are still capable of falling on their knees or running into the rain.
On 1998’s Yield, Vedder declared, “I’ve stopped trying to make a difference.” That’s not entirely the case, but therein lies the success of Pearl Jam. By not overextending or aspiring to be anything more than a rock ‘ n’ roll pure-play, Pearl Jam has created something that will resonate far deeper. You don’t have to define “the times” to be true to them.