CLINT BROWNLEE ON HOW MUSIC HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
Pearl Jam’s latest record is a cohesive statement on much that is sideways in America and the world, albeit intermittently veiled and unapologetically direct. The cover art may encourage your eyes to linger in awe—is that what I think it is?—but the imagery is not just intriguing, it’s pointed. The dozen varied songs, with vaguely visual and abrupt titles, regale the careful listener with repeated complaints, regrets, warnings. It both seethes and rocks (in the cradle sense). It punches, then caresses. It stays with you.
If you read the paragraph above in 2020, it would suit Gigaton just fine. It also could have been written about Vs. in 1993.
History repeats. Everything old is new again. There is truth to the time-related cliches, sure, but in the case of Pearl Jam’s second studio record and their eleventh, it’s more like bookends that complement each other without either being derivative of the other. Set some 27 years apart, they also highlight a sandwiched timeline of largely unchanged faults of American society—and human character. The band’s members matured; their concerns merely deepened, as much has remained static in our world.
Vs. rips straight into a plea with Eddie Vedder’s first lyric, “Don’t go out on me.” Whether it’s a car nearing a breakdown (as has been said), someone walking away, or Pearl Jam itself that Vedder swears he didn’t take “for granted,” the album wastes no time in positioning the frontman and band against an adversary. Gigaton opener “Who Ever Said” laments “random speakers in my mind” and “sideways talk poisoning our thoughts,” calling out the adversary again, be it unrelated to the first record’s or the very same entity. Human goodness, perhaps?
Just as “Go” and “Animal” dig a trench in symbolic sand, “Who Ever Said” and “Superblood Wolfmoon” sketch the band’s opposition—and can be intuited to benefit (or suffer) from the perspective of nearly three decades of life experience. With Vedder lines like “Whoever said it’s all been said/Gave up on satisfaction” and “Both my hands are swollen, my face is broken/And I’m hoping that I hurt your… fist,” it’s clear that humanity’s unique set of brutalities are still on the band members’ minds.
Gigaton’s “Quick Escape” imagines a future where these failures mount as people scramble to “find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet” and culminate in exodus to Mars. “Should’ve known,” Vedder sings. It’s a sensationalized cousin of “Rearviewmirror,” in which the narrator speeds away from a perpetrator of (physical? mental?) abuse—yet bittersweet while the former song feels darkly triumphant. In both cases, though, the damage has been done.
Similarly, two slower-paced songs from 2020 echo 1993’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” The earlier song is heartbreaking due to its melancholic lyrics outlining profound regret; “Comes Then Goes” mines similar mental territory (“Would some love be best had it not appeared?”) and “Seven “O’Clock” blows regret up to a grand scale as Vedder seems to point back at where America was heading until 2016. “We saw the destination, got so close before it turned/Swim sideways from this undertow and do not be deterred.” The figurehead for this fundamental shunting? “Sitting Bullshit as our sitting president.”
In the early 1990s, Vedder may have been equally socially and politically minded but he had not started calling out specific figures… except for then-bandmate Dave Abbruzzese. “Glorified G” was fueled by the drummer’s admission that he had recently purchased two firearms, a piece of news that Vedder embraced as a vehicle to admonish American gun culture itself.
Gigaton’s “Retrograde” again features pointed concern related to a society-defining issue. Like the title “Glorified G” sarcastically refers to the song’s subject matter without giving it away—and thus inviting careful listening—the 2020 song title intrigues by suggesting something’s backwards. Vedder’s lyrics, and the animated video featuring activist Greta Thunberg as a fortune teller, paint a clear and sweeping picture: Humanity is dooming itself. “Seven seas are raising/Forever futures fading out,” Vedder sings.
This sense of doom comes through clear and fiery on Vs., too, though it’s more narrowly directed. In “Blood,” Vedder rages at the media and its human cogs driven by society’s fascination with success and fame. The song title itself refers to his own life-enabling liquid, metaphorically splattered across publication pages and screens at the time. “Suck my fuckin’ life out, man,” he rails at those putting he and his bandmates under the proverbial microscope. Vedder’s own world surely felt it could be coming to an end in 1993, when the music Pearl Jam and its Seattle contemporaries made was changing the lives of young people across the planet.
Equally incensed but without the personal offense fueling “Blood” is Vs.’s “Rats.” This unique, driving song gets much closer to the sweeping statement of “Retrograde”—because the lyrics are essentially a laundry list of humankind’s faults. By comparing our behavior to that of the rat, a generally reviled underfoot menace, the smaller animal becomes the clearly superior species. “They don’t compare,” Vedder ultimately states, summing up the dangers and cruelty of human nature in a single verb.
Gigaton closer “River Cross” navigates the same turbulent waters under the guise of a Pearl Jam-branded, low-key-until-it-sneakily-soars beauty not so unlike final Vs. track “Indifference.” Here Vedder cites the “undertow” again and “this deepest night” and “living beneath a lion’s paw.” It’s people causing problems, of course, and in this case, the people in charge. It’s the “government,” which “thrives on discontent.”
But Vedder and his bandmates haven’t completed their point just yet. Before finally declaring that these human forces “WON’T HOLD US DOWN” (printed that way in the liner notes), the lyric writer and singer relates this: “Folded over, forced in a chokehold/Outnumbered and held down.”
This is no small sentiment. It’s the same topical note addressed more explicitly in Vs.’s “W.M.A.”—abuse of authority. Think of protests in recent years, and police force and government responses. Think of oppression. Think of people dying at the hands of their ostensible protectors. These are surely factors that drove Vedder’s songwriting both as a twenty-something and a fifty-something.
In “W.M.A.,” it’s very clear Vedder is speaking to police mistreatment of people of color (“Walks by me to get to him/Police man”). The song is also an acknowledgment of white privilege, taking its very name from the phrase “white male American.” And there’s a single statement within the song that does not rhyme, does not instantly correlate to the other lyrics: “Jesus greets me… looks just like me.” Now the singer has aligned organized religion with the other addressed human faults.
Of course that aspect of our species has not fundamentally changed over the last three decades—nor have most others Vs. called out in 1993—so it isn’t surprising that Vedder is still thinking about it. In “River Cross,” he follows the lines nodding to abuse of power and racism with lines aimed at those more concerned with an eternally perfect future than the challenging present. “All this talk of rapture,” he sings, “Look around at the promise NOW.”
The listener is posed a question with Vedder’s final lyric of Vs. He closes “Indifference” with “How much difference does it make?” It’s tempting to read/hear that as the singer and band falling down, collapsing under the weight of fame and the need to fight for what’s right on too many fronts. But paired with the lines between that refrain—give it a listen when you’re done here—it’s clear that their efforts do matter. Your efforts matter. Our efforts matter. Perhaps efforts are all that matter, because there’s nothing without them.
Given recent events, it’s not surprising that this sentiment is still on the minds of Vedder, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, and Matt Cameron in 2020. Like the band has since the beginning, they’re still wearing the thoughts on their sleeves, too. Vedder closes “Seven O’Clock” with the statement, “Much to be done.” And in “Buckle Up,” written by Gossard, Pearl Jam essentially sums up its entire career and its varied philanthropic efforts with two phrases. “Firstly do no harm,” Vedder sings. “Then put your seatbelt on.”
That’s how you help, how you rise, how you help others rise.
Pearl Jam’s members may have already been living by the “do no harm” edict in 1993, but they likely would have ceased to be a band that year if they hadn’t quickly buckled in for the ensuing ride.