There is a rational and officially sanctioned music-critic approach to covering Gigaton, the first Pearl Jam album in seven years, due out next week.
For instance, I had outlined a theory about how all legacy acts by the time they’ve reached their second or third decade inevitably make one of two kinds of albums. The first is the “we still got it!” record, in which you reboot your career by making an LP that reminds the public of what you once did extremely well. (This is the U2 All That You Can’t Leave Behind model.) The second is the “holy sh*t!” we’re gonna be dead soon” record, in which you reflect ponderously on your own mortality. (This is the Bob Dylan Time Out Of Mind model.) While these approaches vary sonically and thematically, they have the same purpose. Whereas younger artists in the prime of the careers are constantly striving for reinvention — even if it means temporarily alienating the audience in service of the overall greater artistic good — legacy artists are tasked with constantly reminding people that they still exist, and (here’s the tricky part) that this existence should still matter to all of us.
Pearl Jam‘s first album was released in 1991. For five years, they were one of the most famous and popular bands in the world. For the next 24 years, they’ve remained as successful as practically any rock band in terms of their status as a live attraction. But they haven’t put out a song or an album — save for the fluky 1999 hit “Last Kiss” — that has penetrated the mainstream public consciousness. For about six of those years, this appeared to be by design. But for the last 18 years — an entire generation of music listeners — the rest of the world has been content to leave Pearl Jam and their fan base to their own devices. Gigaton exists in this context, and the album makes minimal effort to transcend it.
If I were writing about this album during a typical week, I might have taken issue with this. I might have compared them to Radiohead, who emerged at about the same time in the early ’90s and managed to stay relevant for millennials by putting out acknowledged mid-career masterworks like 2007’s In Rainbows that ensured they wouldn’t be defined first and foremost as a Gen-X band. But … this is not a typical week.
If I listen to Gigaton three months from now, when (maybe?) I’m able to see live shows and go to record stores again, perhaps I’ll feel differently. But for now, my main takeaway from this album is that I am grateful for how familiar it sounds. Yes, Gigaton sounds like a Pearl Jam record. Especially like the last three Pearl Jam records, which are probably not your favorite Pearl Jam records. But I like how normal life feels when this album is on. What more could you want from a Pearl Jam record right now? During a moment when nothing that we rely upon seems to be working properly, a Pearl Jam record that competently delivers abundant Pearl Jam-ness suddenly seems revolutionary.
More than that, I am thrilled to be reminded that this band still exists. In fact, do we know how Eddie Vedder is feeling this very moment? Can we get him tested, just to be safe? How about we stuff him inside of an underground bunker in Hawaii until this all blows over. Can we also put Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Al Green, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Bob Weir, and Mavis Staples in this same bunker? Sweet Jesus, protect these people!
The strength of Gigaton is that it manages to be a “we still got it!” record and a “holy sh*t! we’re gonna be dead soon” record at the same time. Which is to say, it follows the Rolling Stones Tattoo You model. Like Tattoo You, Gigaton is front-loaded with aggressive (and sometimes aggressively dumb) rock songs that eventually give way to slower, deeper, more contemplative ballads in the back half. (Credit for this apparently goes to Vedder, who sequenced the album out of a mountain of material the band had amassed in fits and starts in the last several years.)
My usual complaint with late-period Pearl Jam albums is that the rockers often sound growly, overly amped, and generic. Even in their prime, Pearl Jam’s ideal “rock” mode was strictly mid-tempo. (See “Corduroy,” “Not For You,” “Hail Hail.”) But the barrage of riff-y tunes that open Gigaton are certainly more convincing than the leaden rock tracks that padded 2013’s Lightning Bolt. The standout from this section of the record is undoubtedly Gigaton‘s first single, “Dance Of The Clairvoyants,” a genuinely catchy, herky-jerky new-wave curiosity that feels like a radical experiment by this band’s late-stage MOR standards. The songs that surround it are less distinctive, but at least they’re melodic and likable, particularly the album opener “Who Ever Said,” which reverts to PJ’s reliable method of plundering Who’s Next for feisty, windmill guitar licks. And then there’s “Quick Escape,” a slick mid-tempo (yes!) callback to the Yield era in which Vedder directly calls out the president. (A few tracks later, the slightly-slower-than-mid-tempo “Seven O’Clock,” he refers to Donald Trump as “Sitting Bullshit,” which I’ll forgive this week more than most.)
The middle part of Gigaton resembles the mid-section of Pearl Jam career, in that it’s sonically murky, moody, and more “interesting” than engaging. Though because this is a late-period PJ album, the execution is never less than solidly professional, eschewing the willful chaos and artistic risk that makes those early aughts albums so compelling. “Take The Long Way” is mostly boilerplate rawk until an invigorating psychedelic coda swoops in, while “Buckle Up” weirdly resembles CSNY’s “Deja Vu” with a dash of Jethro Tull.
If Gigaton had ended here, it would’ve improved slightly on Lightning Bolt and 2006’s extremely okay self-titled “avocado” record, but fallen short of 2009’s Backspacer, an uneven LP that nevertheless boasts the two best songs of the band’s late career, “Unthought Known” and “Amongst The Waves.” (Plus, the wedding staple “Just Breathe,” which Willie Nelson saw fit to cover, so it at least deserves a shout-out from me.) But the final three songs take Gigtaton from “pretty good Pearl Jam album” territory to an unexpected “potentially great” place.
It’s also where Gigaton most resembles an Eddie Vedder solo LP, especially the rambling, Springsteen-esque acoustic ballad “Comes Then Goes.” Up until this point, Vedder has been trying to sell you on his mostly undiminished physicality as an arena-rock singer, supported by the still supple and muscular backing of his band. (The rhythm section of Matt Cameron and Jeff Ament sounds especially brawny.) But on “Comes Then Goes,” he lets the mileage that’s accumulated in recent years show. Since the last Pearl Jam album, Vedder was both affirmed by a Rock Hall induction and stranded by the shocking death of his friend and big-brother figure, Chris Cornell. “Comes Then Goes” is a rueful hymn about the blessing and burden of being the last band from your class still standing.
“A glimpse of my friend / Don’t know where or when one of us left the other behind,” Vedder sings. “Divisions came and troubles multiplied / Incisions made by scalpel blades of time.” Ultimately, even survival is “all vivisection in the end,” he concludes.
This meditative quality continues, side two of Tattoo You-style, with “Retrograde,” another mournful sigh enlivened by robust music penned by Mike McCready that evokes Automatic For The People-era R.E.M. “It’s going to take much more than ordinary love to lift us up,” Vedder says. Unlike the bombastic political commentary of the earlier tracks, this angst feels organic to an inner spiritual crisis. He picks up this thread in the album’s dirge-like closer “River Cross” — which, like “Comes Then Goes,” is written solely by Vedder — only now he’s addressing the apocalypse head on. Over a wheezing pipe organ, Vedder moans that, “I wish this moment was never-ending / Let it be a lie that all futures die.” But you can tell that he doesn’t buy this self-deception. He sounds like a guy utterly alone at the end of something — a career, a way of life, a world.
But because Gigaton is utterly a Pearl Jam album, he can’t quite end on that note. Right when “River Cross” threatens to collapse into total despair, Vedder implores his audience to their feet. Whatever faces us “won’t hold us down,” he declares with an extremely Eddie Vedder-esque roar. He then repeats “won’t hold us down” as a rallying cry, over and over. “Shout it out,” he says. And you will listen to him, because it’s Eddie Vedder. And this will make you feel better. Maybe not three months from now. But experiencing a moment of grace right now is enough.
Gigaton is out on 3/27 via Republic Records. Get it here.