No Code Turns 20

No Code Turns 20

No Code is not a classic album.

When people talk about Alt Nation, and the bands that defined it, Pearl Jam is obviously a factor. People either remember them as relics of grunge’s big mainstream explosion, or they look at them as classicist rock journeymen who happened to come out of the era. In any case, they are talking about massive albums like Ten and Vs., albums amongst the list of the works that helped define a generation and a decade. They might be talking about Vitalogy, or at least the hits it begat, like “Corduroy” and “Betterman.”

They are not talking about No Code. Released 20 years ago this Saturday, it was Pearl Jam’s fourth album, one that came after the collapse of the original grunge movement, a release settled amidst their disastrous post-grunge progeny and larger shifts away from their version of the ’90s. It’s the one that definitively marks the end of Pearl Jam as the chart-topping, voice-of-a-generation type rock behemoth they once were, in turn marking the beginning of the group’s strange middle years and setting the stage for them eventually becoming the band we now know — still widely beloved and wildly popular, but years removed from “relevance.”

Within Pearl Jam’s extremely devout fanbase, there are divisions. There are lifers who have stuck to the early albums even while not totally being onboard with much of what’s happened since, people who love everything the band touches, people who cite Pearl Jam’s (comparatively) experimental phase and wandering middle chapter as their best work. In the meantime, that middle phase produced albums that plenty of more casual fans and critics have ignored or written off along the way.

I should tell you right now I’m one of those fans that doesn’t always connect with the earlier version of Pearl Jam but loves the middle years. On most days, I could call No Code my favorite Pearl Jam album, and I still wonder what the ’00s and ’10s could’ve looked like for the band had they followed some of these paths rather than pivoting to the classic rock middle ground they’ve hung out in since the mid-’00s. No Code ushered in their flirtations with art-rock and light psychedelic flourishes in a more substantial way than middle-finger detours like Vitalogy’s “Bugs.” This was the band that, five years prior, scored major hits with the dramatic arena-catharses “Alive” and “Jeremy.” By 1996, they seemed entirely uninterested in ever repeating that, but they were still one of the biggest bands in the world. All that makes for a much more curious, and richer, album than No Code is often credited as being.

If Vitalogy is Pearl Jam’s growing pains album, then No Code is where they hit full-blown identity crisis. All the strain that yielded Vitalogy had only festered more in the subsequent two years. There was their much-scrutinized and -criticized battle with Ticketmaster, which ultimately registered as a defeat for them. Touring Vitalogy while boycotting Ticketmaster meant touring a more off-the-beaten path, leading to fans being frustrated they couldn’t get tickets and extra stress on the band members themselves. The personal tensions that boiled up during Vitalogy continued, with Eddie Vedder continuing to take control over Pearl Jam’s creative direction. Just as Stone Gossard nearly quit during Vitalogy, this time Jeff Ament found himself disenchanted with Pearl Jam, meaning that for two albums back-to-back, both of the guys who had started the band had become alienated at some point.

These were transitional years, but they weren’t without their benefits. Between Vitalogy and No Code, the group had served as Neil Young’s backing band on 1995’s Mirror Ball, which functioned as a rejuvenating breather from their own rockstardom. On the other hand, that was also when Vedder was dealing with a stalker — chronicled in No Code’s furious, bug-eyed “Lukin” — which prevented him from participating in Mirror Ball more and which could have only exacerbated his anxiety about their fame. (Tellingly, when they play “Lukin” live they often stitch it together with Vitalogy’s “Not For You,” another song dealing with the invasions Vedder felt he experienced as a result of his stature.) This all culminated in a frayed band and an album that leaned heavily on soul-searching.

Who knows if they would’ve made it through all that were it not for Jack Irons. After firing their drummer Dave Abbruzzese, they eventually replaced him with Irons, who was in Red Hot Chili Peppers once upon a time. The Irons years are talked about in a certain way amongst Pearl Jam fans, as if he was the one true fit they ever had as a drummer, the guy who helped them tap into a different side of themselves. At the very least, it often sounds as if he provided the glue during the tumultuous times surrounding No Code. Beyond that, it often comes across that there was something in his influence that allowed them to branch out in the more exploratory directions of No Code.

All the changes were evident from the beginning, in the rolling, meditative first single “Who You Are” or in the opening track of the album itself, “Sometimes.” Almost all of Pearl Jam’s albums open with uptempo rockers, save No Code and Riot Act, the two most discursive and wandering LPs they’ve yet to make. In particular, “Sometimes” was following in the footsteps of “Once” on Ten, “Go” on Vs., and “Last Exit” on Vitalogy. These are all definitive, direct, angry songs. “Sometimes” feels defeated and confused and ruminative in comparison, appropriately pulling the curtain back on an album that still ranks as the group’s most diverse.

It’s right there in the one-two that occurs by them placing “Hail, Hail” right after “Sometimes”: the broken koan followed by the roar, a polarity that plays out in different ways across the various sounds and tones that populate the rest of the record. From there, you had Crazy Horse-indebted churn in “Smile” and “Red Mosquito,” punk ragers “Habit” and “Lukin,” and gentle acoustic ballads “Off He Goes” and closer “Around The Bend.”

The crowning achievements of No Code are the two tracks that follow the “Sometimes” and “Hail, Hail” pairing, “Who You Are” and “In My Tree.” (Two of their best songs, period, if you ask me.) Irons is the MVP of these songs, providing tumbling percussion that pushed the band in rhythmic directions previously unheard in their music, and still unique in the context of anything they’ve done since. Both are the epitome of Pearl Jam’s yearning middle year sensibilities, gesturing towards Eastern embellishments and vague spirituality.

It’s a far cry from Pearl Jam that existed only a few years beforehand, and Vedder’s voice shows it. Far removed from the gigantic but sometimes-cartoonish bellow of the early years, he’d settled into a different mode: pinched and frantic on the rockers, and a deep and controlled contemplation on a song like “Who You Are.” “In My Tree” exists almost entirely on its own, with him first lingering in that lower register and then swooping up, ragged as well as clear and wide-eyed. He soars above the song in ways that would appear on a handful of their other best tracks from the middle years, like “Given To Fly” and “In Hiding” on No Code’s successor, 1998’s Yield. With “In My Tree” it makes for one of the most intense journeys in all of Pearl Jam’s catalog: Vedder gliding, then fighting amidst the rising instrumental, finally giving way to the pull of the waves by the song’s end.

The loose spirituality explored on No Code is a precursor to the mellowed-out version of the band that developed later, and particularly the version of himself that Vedder grew into: the wizened surfer-bro Lebowski, abiding and releasing ukulele albums. In addition to “Who You Are” and “In My Tree,” songs like “Present Tense” and “I’m Open” also delved into the sorta-undefined mysticism underlying the album, both thematically and sonically. While the overarching tone is what makes No Code special compared to Pearl Jam’s other work, it’s also a slight flaw of the album. Vedder has a way with coming up with evocative and cutting lines, but he can also veer into overly-simplified sentiments on occasion. In the case of No Code, there’s a tendency to prize youth and innocence. In the spoken word passage of “I’m Open,” Vedder describes the experience of a man, saying, “When he was six he believed that the moon overhead followed him. By nine he had deciphered the illusion, trading magic for fact. No tradebacks…” That alone is a powerful and relatable image, but it’s nearly undermined by the following line: “So this is what it’s like to be an adult. If he only knew now, what he knew then.”

But on an album as undecided and searching as No Code, there are bound to be a few stumbles. And once you get past those, there’s a weight to all of it that justifies some of the clumsier sentiments mixed in with the insightful ones. This was music made by people approaching or hovering around 30, having attained the Dream, having built the kind of life they theoretically always wanted, but then taking stock of that life and what they really wanted out of it. The focus on innocence plays better in that context, when you consider No Code as, largely, an album about the passage of things. That’s the engine behind songs like “Present Tense” and “Around The Bend,” tracks that showcase the reckoning at the heart of the album, looking at how much time you’ve spent, how you’ve spent it, and how you’re going to spend the rest as you pass in and out of people’s lives and they pass in and out of yours.

The stunner in that group is “Off He Goes,” a track written about a character but really about Vedder from his own perspective, as the friend who flits in and out of being present, drifting through life and occasionally colliding with his loved ones, before he’s off again. It’s one of the finest character-driven songs Pearl Jam’s ever done, telling a story specific to people who spend much of their time traveling and not around the people supposedly at the core of their life, but also resonant on a larger scale: It’s a story that we can all experience on some level as we get older and various relationships come in and out of focus, and then back again.

Pearl Jam’s earlier material tackled heavy subjects. School shootings, hate crimes, the fact that Vedder was raised by a man he believed to be his father only to later discover that his real father had been kept from him. Yet there’s something about how those early records have aged. They feel so of their time, and it’s become too easy for people to reduce them to a reputation of one-note early ’90s angst. What’s frustrating about the group’s legacy is how overlooked Pearl Jam’s post-peak albums remain. This isn’t a band that has much stock amongst young indie bands. Yet No Code, an album underrated both in Pearl Jam’s context and in the context of the ’90s at large, is music you could see lending the band a better reputation. It’s a mature work from a group that weathered a certain kind of storm when they could have easily imploded instead.

Like the Britpop comedown that happened in 1997 and 1998, there’s a quality to mid-’90s American records like Soundgarden’s Down On The Upside and No Code, a sound of things petering out and concluding on a more damaged note than where they’d began.

As Pearl Jam creeps up on their 25th anniversary as a band — their first concert was in Seattle on 10/22/90 — it’s intriguing to look back on this moment. Nirvana was over, Soundgarden would end soon, Alice In Chains were fragmenting. There were different artists, and a different sound and ethos, that were taking over. The lingering impact of an album like No Code is the fact that it offers a glimpse of a major rock band countering all that, looking for their space. This album was the result, the long hangover, of Pearl Jam’s constant battle with their own stature. It isn’t fair to call it a post-fame freakout type record, because the entirety of the time they were at their highest prominence was a fame freakout. This is just the frayed, inevitable endpoint. It’s an album that’s equal parts fragile and violent, and as a result there’s lingering mystery and beauty here that deserves revisiting.

The difference between No Code and Down On The Upside, however, was that it wasn’t the final, dusty post-script. It was Pearl Jam opening everything up, rooting through the big existential quandaries and choosing suggestion. It’s easy to wish they’d gone even further and deeper with it over the course of the last two decades; even throughout the rest of the middle years, they never got quite as weird as they did here, or at least didn’t get the same kind of results they did here.

There’s a bit of suggestion remaining with No Code: a weird turning point in a band’s career, indicating they have that in them and could go back to that place, even with the more settled lives they have now. Either way, even if they never rage against themselves quite like this again, we’ll always have this document of that time. And out of almost anything Pearl Jam has done, this is the album that feels more enduring, grappling with questions that arise in any of our lives. They might not reach any satisfying conclusions, but life’s like that half the time, too. The beauty of No Code is that it settles for reaching a point where you can at least begin to sketch the road forward.

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