By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
I’m not gonna pretend I have a complete grasp on all this. There’s just too much Arcadium in this Stadium for me to fully come to terms with in a listen or two. I’ll need another year or three, and, truthfully, I might have other things to do with my life. But I can tell you what it feels like fresh off my boom box. It feels like a mad-hatter cruise down Mulholland with the top down and the beautiful and broken scenery of Los Angeles speeding by. And while the whole thing could have benefited from Rick Rubin occasionally turning around and telling the guys in the back seat to settle down for a minute, amazing moments abound. Foremost among them are the weird and wonderful “Animal Bar” and “Death of a Martian” off the Mars disc. These songs alone show that the Chilis have bottled some magic that I can’t imagine any other band in the world conjuring right now. I wonder what they’ll come up with next. Hopefully, not Mirage.
Aside from next to nothing, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam have a lot in common. Musically, they are as far apart as rock gets, but they share some serious back story: Both bands suffered through the heroin ODs of seminal figures (Andrew Wood of Pearl Jam precursor Mother Love Bone; founding member Hillel Slovak of the Chili Peppers), both broke out in 1991-92, with the help of the second Lollapalooza tour; hell, Jack Irons, who used to drum for the Chilis, introduced Eddie Vedder to the other members of Pearl Jam and later did a stint as P.J.’s drummer.
After that, though, they go their own ways. One of the main differences being that Pearl Jam’s first record catapulted them to megastardom almost immediately, while BloodSugarSexMagic was the Chilis’ fifth album.
So, if the Chili Peppers can be said to have been building to this moment, Pearl Jam came out of the gates so fast and furiously — each of their first three records (Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy) is the kind of statement most bands would spend a career trying to make — perhaps the only thing they could have been building toward was a crash. Instead, they simply slowed down. Some would say they withdrew — into somber, downbeat, sometimes frustratingly (for many) iconoclastic records like Binaural and Riot Act that shed a lot of their casual fans but also slyly shed the overbearing expectations that came with entering about a dozen songs into Rock & Roll Evermore so early in their career.
Now, though, their eighth release, on career-resuscitator Clive Davis’ J Records, tellingly titled Pearl Jam, is being almost universally hailed by the media (including Newsweek, Billboard, Rolling Stone) as a return to form — their best album in years. But “returning to form” can be a dangerous thing. The same thing was said about U2’s last couple of records, and there’s precious little on them worth talking about, let alone remembering. It’s especially dangerous for an inherently restless group like Pearl Jam, who sound like no one else, despite the legion of bland, platinum-selling imitators they spawned, but who also have no two records that sound alike.
Until now, that is, because Pearl Jam sounds like a lot of Pearl Jam records. It’s almost as if they’ve been leafing through photo albums trying to figure out who they are and where they belong after coming home from years in exile. The frenetic, punkish opening tracks — “Life Wasted,” “World Wide Suicide,” “Comatose” and “Severed Hand” — could have been culled from the Vs. and Vitalogy sessions. Meanwhile, the more anthemic numbers, like “Unemployable,” “Gone” and “Inside Job,” would have fit comfortably on 1998’s stirring and largely underappreciated Yield.
Though I happen to be a fan of the band’s recent lost years, and the endearingly world-weary and wizened Eddie Vedder that came with them (perhaps the result of various tragedies like the trampling deaths of nine fans at the Roskilde Festival in 2002, and the breakup of his marriage, and the Bush ascendancy), the return here to something obviously intended for wider appeal isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That’s because, well, Vedder has things on his mind, and if there’s one thing he can be counted on to do, it’s to say what’s bugging him loudly and to say it proudly. On Pearl Jam, he’s back on the attack, and, well, that suits him and the band just fine, too.
The object of his ire is the war in Iraq and the dire state of the union, not surprising since Vedder has been one of rock’s first and most consistent opponents of Bush and the calamity of his presidency, railing against it before it was safe to do so. It would be wrong to call this a concept album. It’s not all war all the time — the soulful R&B-flavored love song “Comeback” is Vedder’s most affecting vocal performance in years, and “Big Wave” is about, yes, surfing. But the psychic toll of war drenches the record like blood on a bayonet. And it’s not all in-your-face numbers like the now-ubiquitous single “World Wide Suicide.” Character-driven storytelling in songs like “Army Reserve” (“Her son’s slanted/always giving her the sideways eye/an empty chair where dad sits/how loud can silence get?”), “Unemployable” and “Gone” are more persuasive than a dozen rants along the lines of Riot Act’s sophomoric “Bu$hleaguer” could ever be.
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