hen I was growing up, Pearl Jam’s greatness was always just assumed. Like no other band of the decade, Pearl Jam’s stuff was legendary straight off the bat, the kind of music that fit just as snugly into the playlist of the local classic rock station as it did in into the playlist of the local alternative rock station. Sure, there were other bands of the time whose legendary status was already unquestionable—Weezer, Green Day, and of course Nirvana, but their greatness seemed more personal—Weezer and Green Day sang directly to their audiences, and Nirvana were too cripplingly insecure to ever seem larger than life. It was Pearl Jam who were the titans of the decade, our generation’s offering to the gods of rock.
Not that Pearl Jam would necessarily feel comfortable dining at the table of Led Zeppelin and GnR—while their music was supremely confident, it never smacked of braggadocio, and it never tried to be necessarily tough. Pearl Jam built their rock reputation on integrity and sincerity rather than swagger and intensity. They were that most rare of paradoxes: a classic rock outfit that was quintessentially 90s, a band with one foot in each generation. And whether you think making only two music videos, rallying against Ticketmaster and scribbling pro-choice messages on your arm during MTV concerts makes Eddie Vedder and company worthy of “conscience of rock” consideration, it’s undeniable that they at least maintained some sort of artistic credibility, never succumbing to the excesses of their rock god predecessors.
But what has come into debate recently is whether Pearl Jam should be congratulated or condemned for that earnestness. As recent logic dictates, it was Pearl Jam (and not, say, Nirvana) that was most directly responsible for the direction of post-grunge rock in mainstream music—a direction which first led to the reviled Candlebox and Seven Mary Three, which in turn led to the even more reviled Creed and Nickelback, which in turn led to the even more reviled Crossfade and Puddle of Mudd, and so on and so on. It was Pearl Jam’s sincerity and straight-faced guitar rock, people say, that inspired a generation of hard rockers to shed their sense of fun in favor of writing increasingly less tuneful, increasingly less humorous but increasingly more melodramatic, unenjoyable music.
There is some truth—perhaps even more than most Pearl Jam fans would care to acknowledge—in that line of reasoning, but where the thinking falters is in the idea that this negative influence does not reflect back on Pearl Jam themselves. Listening to Rearviewmirror, the first Pearl Jam compilation to compile all the hits of the band’s decade spanning career, it’s clear that they are guilty of few, if any, of the atrocities committed by the groups they may have spawned. And the songs—which if you were listening to modern rock for even half a year in the 1990s, you probably know almost all of—sound as great as ever.
The structure of Rearviewmirror initially seems somewhat bizarre. It’s divided into two discs—the “up side” and the “down side”, which reflect not the band’s creative decline, but the band’s two types of moods. The first is the disc for the rockers, the earnest anthems on which the band bases much of their reputation—classics like “Alive”, “Even Flow”, “Corduroy” and “Do the Evolution”. The second is the disc for the less righteous, somewhat more complex Pearl Jam of “Black”, “Daughter” and “Wishlist,” and contains many of the band’s lesser known singles and favored album tracks. Both discs are organized chronologically, with the exception of the wise placement of “Yellow Ledbetter” as the encore to disc two. Though there are some questionable placements on the two discs—the brooding, spooky “I Got ID” would seem more at place on disc two, and the soaring, riff-heavy “Given to Fly” would make more sense on disc one—it’s an interesting strategy, giving each disc a separate feel while still managing to maintain a fair sense of Pearl Jam’s evolution.
Though they are as overplayed as any songs of the past 15 years, I was shocked with how fresh the early songs still sound. This is in no small part due to the excellent remixing job of Brendan O’Brien, who completely revitalizes several of the Ten singles, clipping the pointless intro to “Once” and imbuing the guitar sheen of “Alive” with a new sense of grandeur. But more importantly, these are still simply excellent guitar anthems. The guitar heroics of “Alive” and “Even Flow” sounding almost as magical as any of Page or Hendrix’s most legendary moments, and even if the Public Service Announcement preaching of “Jeremy” hasn’t dated quite so well, Vedder’s fervor is still as compelling as ever. And thankfully, none of the mediocre songs from the second half of Ten are included, the band wisely opting instead to include their two excellent contributions to the Singles soundtrack, “State of Love and Trust” and “Breath”, the former being perhaps Pearl Jam’s greatest moment. From this period, only the gorgeous b-side “Footsteps” (the band’s first acoustic number) is missing.
The next segment of the compilation belongs to Pearl Jam’s twin, post-superstar albums, Vs. and Vitalogy. These albums were incredibly mixed bags, and some of the band’s fans didn’t quite know what to make of them, but the highlights of both are neatly summed up here. Aside from a couple of superfluous rockers (“Dissident” and “Animal”, songs that became hits solely on the band’s reputation and could have been dispensed with to the disappointment of no one) and the exclusion of invigorating Vitalogy opener “Last Exit”, the selections from these two albums are uniformly excellent. The unfortunately forgotten radio hits “Go” and “Spin the Black Circle” are included, as are the heartbreaking ballads “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” and “Immortality” and Pearl Jam’s last batch of recognized classics, the fantastic “Daughter” and the slightly grating but still infectious “Better Man”. But most importantly included is the compilation’s title track, Pearl Jam’s most inspired and underrecognized song, finally getting its just due.
After the fabulous non-album track “I Got ID”, the rest of the compilation documents Pearl Jam’s half-willful slide from being the biggest band in the world to the biggest cult act in the world. After alienating a good deal of their less devoted fans with the world-music influenced No Code, Pearl Jam stopped churning out rock radio classics in favor of subtler, more contemplative numbers that could still be quite anthemic, but never again reached the righteousness of their first couple albums. This is a fascinating (if not quite as compelling) period, and will most likely be the main draw of the compilation for fans sick of having to trudge through Yield or Binaural for the songs they like.
No Code here is represented with the uncharacteristic light rocker “Hail Hail” and the more effective ballad “Off He Goes”, as well as the album’s lead single, the churning “Who You Are”. These songs don’t necessarily go too far towards recommending a re-evaluation of the often misunderstood album, but they are welcome inclusions. Yield brings us Pearl Jam’s funkiest, loosest moment, the smashing “Do the Evolution”, as well as the calmingly thoughtful but lyrically slight “Wishlist” and the previously mentioned “Given to Fly”, while the enjoyably minor number “Light Years” and haunting, “Climbing Up the Walls”-sounding “Nothing as it Seems” are the entries from Binaural. These songs are likely to remind fans of Pearl Jam favorites they’ve long since forgotten about, but once again, not likely to inspire re-evaluations of “the other two Pearl Jam albums”.
Faring better, however, are the three inclusions from most recent album Riot Act. “Save You” is their best rave-up in almost a decade, perhaps their most propulsive number since “Last Exit” and a fine closer to disc one, and “I Am Mine” is the most majestic they’ve been in ages, while still managing to show a fair bit of restraint. “Man of the Hour” isn’t quite so impressive, but it does manage to set the stage adequately for Pearl Jam’s all-purpose encore, the totally incomprehensible but still lighter-raised and singalong-ready “Yellow Ledbetter”. These tracks are a fine way to round out the compilation, and though it’s obvious Pearl Jam’s best days are behind them, it’s enough to inspire some hope that they’ve got a few moments of glory left in their righteous bones.
Ultimately Rearviewmirror is fairly inessential for the hardcore fans—even the non-album tracks have already been compiled on last year’s Lost Dogs, and (mercifully) Pearl Jam do not succumb to the temptation to include obligatory new, comp-only tracks. However, it succeeds beautifully as being the definitive Pearl Jam compilation—a perfect two-disc encapsulation of a band that had no entirely great albums, but had two sets of entirely great singles. And more importantly, it works as a needed re-affirmation of the band’s greatness, which has remained untouched after a whole decade of hellish post-grunge ploddings. Pearl Jam are now officially a rock band for the ages.