Photo by Glen E. Friedman

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 you’re one of the 1.5 million who bought the band’s last studio effort, ’98’s Yield, you’ll 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 isn’t 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 band’s excursion with Neil Young, Mirror Ball. But Vedder’s 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 commoner’s perspective on “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” from 1993’s Vs., is the same point of view found on “Insignificance,” from Pearl Jam’s latest, Binaural. What’s a rock & roller worth without an ax to grind?

The vibration of both The Truman Show and cyberpunk flick The Matrix is that reality ain’t 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 Seattle’s 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 album’s best, surrounded by themes of love, chance and change.

“It is so tragic . . . there are no words,” reads Pearl Jam’s statement regarding what seems more like an Altamont-style catastrophe than anything else in the band’s 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.

Even when Vedder doesn’t take the worries of the world on his shoulders, they seem to follow him around. Deriding, on Binaural’s “Grievance,” what he terms the “champagne breakfast for everyone” capitalist perspective of the World Trade Organization, Vedder’s 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.

It’s 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, “There’s a light when my baby’s in my arms.” Amid a cloud of viola and cello, he later targets a relationship dissolving on “Parting Ways” (“Though he’s too big a man to say/
There’s a fear they’ll 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 album’s 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 — he’s 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.

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