Eddie Vedder cares. If the casual music enthusiast remembers nothing else about Pearl Jam beyond their Beatles/Rolling Stones polarization with Nirvana in the early 90s, he recalls the band warring with monster-magnate Ticketmaster in front of congressional subcommittees. If youre one of the 1.5 million who bought the bands last studio effort, 98s Yield, youll probably recall similar crusades: Pearl Jam headlining a Tibetan Freedom Concert, advocating (onstage with Gloria Steinem) freedom of choice, registering thousands of concertgoers to vote. In the politics of rock, Pearl Jam manage a Bulworth campaign; the band spreads their truth through song and action like no one since Springsteen, R.E.M. and U2.
This isnt to say that Pearl Jam featuring Vedder, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament, and drummer Matt Cameron, formerly of Soundgarden are always championing a cause, à la Rage Against the Machine. Sometimes the cause is rock itself, as with the bands excursion with Neil Young, Mirror Ball. But Vedders conspicuous convictions are often a strength, his conscience a virtue, in that the most compelling Pearl Jam moments derive from his anxiety-ridden testimonials on Life. The commoners perspective on Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town, from 1993s Vs., is the same point of view found on Insignificance, from Pearl Jams latest, Binaural. Whats a rock & roller worth without an ax to grind?
The vibration of both The Truman Show and cyberpunk flick The Matrix is that reality aint what it seems if you open your third eye. Vedder has long given voice to the typically 90s skepticism reflecting that vision, the leftist cynicism shared by most of the grunge bands that emerged from Seattles underground. Pearl Jam predicted the Amadou Diallo tragedy in 1993 with W.M.A. (white-male American) in the way Ice Cube foretold the L.A. uprising that followed the Rodney King verdict. These societal mirror-reflective points on Binaural are the albums best, surrounded by themes of love, chance and change.
It is so tragic . . . there are no words, reads Pearl Jams statement regarding what seems more like an Altamont-style catastrophe than anything else in the bands eight-year career. On June 30, at the Roskilde Festival outside Copenhagen, nine concertgoers were suffocated and trampled to death during a Pearl Jam performance. Two were teenagers; the audience had swelled to nearly 50,000 fans. Bands like the Cure, Oasis, the Pet Shop Boys and Live all canceled their sets out of respect for the dead. Pearl Jam immediately canceled upcoming European-tour dates and began reconsidering their summertime American tour.
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Even when Vedder doesnt take the worries of the world on his shoulders, they seem to follow him around. Deriding, on Binaurals Grievance, what he terms the champagne breakfast for everyone capitalist perspective of the World Trade Organization, Vedders vocals relish cross-bearing. Fatal tragedies such as Roskilde and the suicide of Kurt Cobain weigh on the Pearl Jam front man monumentally, as much as you might expect.
Its a hippie truism that only love and fear make the world go round, and Vedder recognizes love as an antidote to fears of things both real and imagined. He charges through the Breakerfall opening rocker, testifying for a woman embittered by a world of her own creation: Only love will breakerfall. On Thin Air, he rejoices, Theres a light when my babys in my arms. Amid a cloud of viola and cello, he later targets a relationship dissolving on Parting Ways (Though hes too big a man to say/ Theres a fear theyll soon be parting ways). Apprehension particularly of isms like materialism and patriotism surfaces on the brief, ukulele-driven parable, Soon Forget, and the Lennonesque Rival.
The Binaural title refers to the double-microphone recording technique of producer Tchad Blake, but could easily derive from the voice given to the albums twin themes of chance and change. Of the Girl, with rollicky guitar licks from Stone Gossard, traces the thoughts of a sidewinder cardsharp type whose woman gives him the will to survive hes a swindler of chance, wowed by love. Evacuation advises us to plant seeds of reconstruction, while Sleight of Hand documents the Walter Mitty existence of someone whose big life change never comes to be.
The recent breakup of Smashing Pumpkins leaves Pearl Jam the last ones standing from the 90s alt-rock era, save the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Far less ingratiating than the Pumpkins on their latest album, on Binaural Pearl Jam perform like a band earnestly entertaining themselves.