he Pearl Jam you knew from more than seven years ago is dead. This is the only way it seems to get past the hurdle that is the group in their current form. It’s not like they really matured as much as they leveled the notion of what they once were. What used to be a band that held the world in the palm of their collective hand, is now in seach of a quiet place in which to hide from it. Which is fine, because the band, especially its reluctant superstar/sex symbol/front man Eddie Vedder, never seemed entirely happy to be the cock of the walk of the alternative nation. Even though they outsold and out pressed every better group of their time (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins), retained a rabid fan base in the death of scenes (grunge), musical movements (alternative) and public protests (the Ticketmaster debacle), Pearl Jam were never anything more than a really good rock band.
So what is Pearl Jam today? They are a band that makes records the way they want to make them, for a devoutly loyal audience. The fans that the band have today are (mostly) not the ones from the days of “Evenflow”, “Daughter”, and “Better Man”. They are a people more dependent on a band's need to have a working dogma and to stick by those principles. Wherein a band makes few to no concessions to their music, their touring and their image. Pearl Jam, by not appearing in videos for their songs (the last video they even released, for Yield's masterful rocker, “Do The Evolution”, was an animated clip by Todd McFarlane, the creator of the comic book Spawn), by giving little regard to the press at large and by challenging the very conventions of what a rock band can be, meet these criteria placed laid out similarly by fans of other bands. Bands of less standing such as Fugazi, or, less in the rock vein as Phish.
Their new album, Riot Act, the band's seventh studio release (let us not even get into the volumes of official "bootlegs" the band has released), finds the band getting their groove on a bit. Former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron really seems to be integrating himself well with the band now and it is made clear by the shuffling rhythm in the album's opener, “Can't Keep”. What the album also makes known is that the band still likes to crank it. This is especially clear on “Save You”. The guitars screech and churn, while Cameron hammers home a crackling beat. “Ghost, You Are” and “Get Right” also get the blood going with the propulsive guitar work of Mike McReady and Stone Gossard.
Never a band to make their quieter forays really work, the band deliver their best one with “Thumbing My Way”. Through its muted organ, acoustic guitars, brushed drums and Vedder's semi-coherent line readings, the band matches intent with mood perfectly.
But, while these are moments to enjoy on the album, there are nearly as many that do not sit so well. From the tepid strains of “I Am Mine”, to the spoken-word mumblings of “Bu$hleaguer”, to the very silly-titled “Love Boat Captain”, wherein Vedder professes "all you need is love", all the while admitting, "it's already been sung, but it can't be said enough", one gets the impression that the bad could outweigh the good at any given moment.
Nothing on the album is as misguided as “Arc”, though. Perhaps his collaboration with the late, great Nusrat Fateh ali Khan led Vedder to believe he is at some sort of similar vocal level to pull off a track like this, but he is sorely mistaken. His desire far outdistances his grasp and the track, all 1:04 of it, just sits there, like a sore thumb on a three-armed man.
The only other quibble with the album is with Vedder. Never one to be clearly understood, he takes his mumbling incoherence to new depths. Numerous listens in and most of the lyrics are still indecipherable. Such is the way of Eddie, though. Why should he enunciate at this point in his career?
All told, this is a definite upswing from the steaming pile of crap that was Binaural, but not the return to form that older fans of the band may have been hoping for. Pearl Jam is a band that have found their comfortable position in the rock world. Whether or not they matter on a mass level anymore has no bearing to them or their fans. Maybe both sides are right, but it would be nice to see them dust off the cobwebs and steal back the thunder they ran from so long ago.
Reviewed by: Brett Hickman
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01