ou may think that the Bush Administration and its disastrous policies have more or less brought this country to its knees, but you have to give them this: they have allowed the creation of the first good Pearl Jam album since 1994. Somehow, Bush and co. have accomplished what the silent pleading of millions of fans over the course of four consecutive, increasingly embarrassing albums could not: they have motivated Pearl Jam to pare away years of accumulated mannerism from their sound, focus on their strengths, and bear down. The resulting self-titled record, their eighth, sounds unexpectedly thrilling—good Jesus Christ, I didn’t know I could still be made to care about Pearl Jam in 2006—and gratifying: it’s nice to know that my adolescent memories of this band weren’t completely wrong. Pearl Jam may be deeply, grievously uncool nowadays, but for those who still care, there’s an undeniable, reaffirming pleasure in hearing this small piece of your past dusted off and restored to a semblance of its former glory.
The political content of this record is pretty much an afterthought. Eddie Vedder’s vague lamentations about people “on both sides killing in God’s name” and how upsetting he finds the morning paper are not the real story; the real story is the newfound conviction in his voice. He has finally abandoned the reticent, affected mumbling and unnecessary vocal mannerisms that plagued the band’s post-Vitalogy work. On those records, he seemed embarrassed by rocking, sounding on the few “rock” songs distracted and non-committal, as if he was trying to remember where he put his keys (see: “Hail, Hail,” most of “Binaural,” and Riot Act’s flat-flooted, cringe-inducing “Save You.”) There is real joy in hearing him let it rip again, howling the title of “World Wide Suicide” with relish until it breaks into a screech, or testing out some openhearted soul-man pleading on “Come Back.” His big insights are mostly still of the whoa-dude variety: “If nothing is everything, I’ll have it all.” But he can also still sketch a sympathetic portrait with little details, like on “Unemployable”: “He’s got a big gold ring that says ‘Jesus saves’ /And its dented from the punch thrown at work that day / When he smashed the metal locker where he kept his things / After the big boss said, ‘You best be on your way.’ ”
The band, meanwhile, seems to have realized that their big, unfashionable 70’s rock sound is best suited to making big, unfashionable 70’s rock. They have scrapped the ill-fitting, aimless raga-influenced jams and pretentious mini-songs, like No Code’s “Sometimes,” that gazed back wistfully at a punk/indie cred that never was. Mostly these songs chug and pound joyfully. A lot of critics noted the sloppy, disengaged nature of their post-Vitalogy work and decided this meant that Pearl Jam “sounded the loosest they had in years,” but here they actually do sound loose, allowing themselves to dig into and enjoy a visceral rock groove. Mike McCready indulges in some hair-flailing wah-wah heroics in “Severed Hand,” but he keeps it to 16 bars and then gets out of the way. There is the ill-advised stab at early-80s hardcore, complete with detuned, atonal guitar solos (“Comatose”), which is like watching old, creaky jocks work out their kinks on the field, but there is also “Parachutes,” a sweet, slightly drunken waltz that exudes a winsome, late-night loneliness. Song-for-song, they haven’t made an album this misstep-free since Vs.
Of course it’s about seven years too late to dispel the stench of frat boy that surrounds the band, repelling indie rockers as surely as garlic does vampires. The indie rockers left the room a long time ago, writing off their youthful love of this band as adolescent folly, and now they’re busy digging on some arch, precious shit like Tapes ‘N Tapes or The Figurines. But even if there’s few people left to hear it, it’s oddly heartwarming as it is unlikely that Pearl Jam has made a record worth listening to in 2006.