Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Pearl Jam Gigaton

Pearl Jam’s career neatly divides into three distinct eras. There are the early days, the grunge boom and their ascension and self-willed implosion as one of the defining artists of the ’90s with Ten, Vs., and Vitalogy. No Code kicked off the searching middle years, during which Pearl Jam dismantled their own fame and made a series of slightly more restless, slightly more experimental, and certainly less commercial albums that successfully removed them from mainstream dominance but still occupy a more hallowed position amongst a certain sect of their most devoted fans.

Then, in 2006, they returned with their first release since 2002’s Riot Act. At that point, it was by far the longest stretch Pearl Jam had waited without releasing a new album. Though often referred to as Avocado, that 2006 album was actually self-titled — as sure a signal as any that, by christening an album with the band’s name that far into their career, this was a moment of rebirth and a new chapter yet again. Since then, Pearl Jam’s albums followed a certain pattern. Each of their three latter-day releases have been more direct and rock-oriented than the middle years. Increasingly they’ve settled into a comfortable perception of who they’re supposed to be in their elder, journeymen stretch. What once scanned as revitalization has started to feel stale, and it’s become easy to wish for a new era once more, one in which Pearl Jam drifted out to sea again.

Now, there’s Gigaton. The fact that so much time has elapsed since 2013’s Lightning Bolt immediately gives this one a certain kind of import. Surely the first Pearl Jam album in seven years would signify the beginning of another new chapter? Surely it must be different. It must be sprawling and ambitious. It must display a changed version of Pearl Jam once more, grappling with a new set of concerns.

When Pearl Jam finally released Gigaton‘s first single in January, it all but confirmed what some of us were anticipating: Yes, finally, they were pushing the boundaries of their sound once more. This long absence had given them time to transform. “Dance Of The Clairvoyants” is built on a more processed, robotically funky beat — Matt Cameron’s versatility now expanded to drum programming — with all kinds of warped tones and little electronic embellishments flashing around a vocal melody that had some David Byrne in its DNA. It’s an odd, catchy song, and while it not might be anything close to avant-garde, hearing Pearl Jam evolve a bit made it a promising introduction to Gigaton.

If “Dance Of The Clairvoyants” isn’t quite a red herring, it’s also not exactly indicative of what to expect. Pearl Jam sound more adventurous than they have in close to 20 years on Gigaton, but this is not their synth album or any other kind of holistic overhaul. It’s still a latter-day Pearl Jam album, of a piece with its immediate predecessors even as it sometimes spiritually recalls the middle years. That combination of reference points makes some kind of sense: More so than trying to go back to the style that first brought them fame and adoring fans, Pearl Jam have spent the past decade-plus looking back to Yield, the 1998 album that in hindsight began to feel like the platonic ideal of a Pearl Jam album.

Ever since their more back-to-basics era kicked off after Riot Act, Pearl Jam have more or less been making variations on a theme. Avocado initially seemed like a big change, roaring back to life with their liveliest, hardest album in years. Backspacer was similarly punchy, but with even more of a streamlined focus on hooks and crisp sounds. Lightning Bolt felt just a bit more lived-in and woolier at the edges, but still with plenty straight-ahead rockers. Each of them followed a form long ago established by Yield: a Pearl Jam album that sounds like an idea of Pearl Jam, with the requisite balance of punk-tinged ragers, bright anthems, acoustic balladry, and the occasional moodier and/or more enigmatic tangent.

As such, Pearl Jam quickly followed “Dance Of The Clairvoyants” with the straightforward “Superblood Wolfmoon,” a song that could’ve appeared on almost any of their albums. The uptempo, riff-driven songs on Gigaton skew towards the latter format, with “Never Destination” and “Take The Long Way” similarly bearing the kind of familiarity that will comfort some fans and sound like placeholders to others. If you’re in the latter camp, know that all of them at least seem like they will be fun live, and “Take The Long Way” has some cool melodies that are easy to get stuck in your head.

Alongside “Dance Of The Clairvoyants,” the best of the album’s rock songs successfully reconfigure core elements of the band with tiny gestures towards something new. Opener “Who Ever Said” also sounds like it could’ve been on at least half of Pearl Jam’s albums, but this time around that’s decidedly a good thing, with a quintessentially Pearl Jam chorus and a long wandering passage that makes the last refrain hit even harder. “Quick Escape” might be the best of the bunch. Penned by Jeff Ament and relying on his rumbling basslines, the song rides a grinding, uncomfortable groove underpinning talk of fleeing to far-flung lands to seek refuge from the headlines of the day, before rupturing into a chorus that, no joke, feels like it could’ve been on one of Pearl Jam’s early ’90s releases.

However, Gigaton is quite meditative overall. Picking up from the little tease of “Infallible” and “Pendulum” on Lightning Bolt, the album has a collection of atmospheric mid-tempo tracks and ballads that are probably as close as this era of Pearl Jam is going to get to the yearning mysticism of No Code. Many of them have all of these little spacey textures buoying them, like the keys in “Alright” or Mike McCready forgoing guitar theatrics for watery flickers in “Seven O’Clock,” which also boasts one of the easiest, prettiest earworm melodies Pearl Jam have written in some time.

The final act of the album is particularly ruminative, starting with the hazy lope of “Buckle Up,” a dreamlike Stone Gossard composition. With a lilting guitar line reminiscent of R.E.M.’s “We Walk” and Eddie Vedder in full reverie, plus a part where background vocals and guitar fuzz mimic a horn section, it’s sneakily one of the weirdest songs on the album and should pleasantly surprise fans of middle-era Pearl Jam. Next, the spare “Comes Then Goes” is mostly just Vedder and a resonant, tumbling acoustic guitar.

Then the album ends with two songs that suggest what it might’ve sounded like if Pearl Jam had once taken a cue from Vedder’s 2007 Into The Wild soundtrack. A couple minutes in, “Retrograde” gives way to a final section that blooms into ghostly, elemental sounds, Vedder howling as an echo in the distance in full “Hard Sun” mode. It’s a gorgeous reminder of what he can do with his voice when he goes into that far-seeing place. When a portion of closer “River Cross” premiered by way of a cheesy Super Bowl commercial narrated by Harrison Ford, it seemed as if it would be the kind of late-era Pearl Jam composition that strove for a forced climax. Instead, it’s a remarkably effective finale to the album, Vedder singing over organ drones and distant thunder percussion. It’s almost prayer-like, ending Gigaton with a moment of careful, uneasy hope, particularly as Vedder locks into his final refrain, “Won’t hold us down.”

Lyrically, the album’s themes don’t always cohere. Given the social and political landscape of the last several years, it was a foregone conclusion that Pearl Jam’s newest album might be a little less contented than their past couple outings, and that there would be a lot of lyrics referencing the state of the world. And while there’s nothing as explicit as Riot Act‘s infamous “Bushleaguer,” there are plenty of lines that do seem informed by current events. These range from one particularly blunt reference — “Crossed the border to Morocco/ Kashmir then Marrakech/ The lengths we had to go to then/ To find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet” in “Quick Escape” — to more evocative half-scenes, like the snapshot in “Who Ever Said” that goes, “Living forward in a backwards town/ I feed ’em drinks just to watch ’em drown.”

The latter is more uncommon, though, with Vedder characteristically leaning into the kind of sloganeering and rallying cries you would expect from latter day Pearl Jam. He’s occasionally sardonic (“It takes a village but don’t take mine”) but otherwise delivers the expected political allusions (“Never destination, more denial”) and near-preaching (“For this is no time for depression or self-indulgent hesitance/ This fucked up situation calls for all hands, hands on deck”). Most of it is frustratingly unspecific — “While the government thrives on discontent … Proselytizing and profitizing/ As our will all but disappears” — rather than the concept record focusing on environmental devastation some fans imagined upon the revelation of the title Gigaton. When Vedder does reference our planet’s beauty, he’s usually falling back on his tendency to use nature as a metaphorical stand-in for “more innocent times” rather than necessarily communicating a weight specific to 2020.

This is par for the course for Pearl Jam. Any fan who’s been along for the ride knows there have been stretches where Vedder’s lyrics can be world-weary and poignant, and even on the same albums the band will stumble into some real clunkers. If you can get past that, Gigaton could be their most engaging album in some time. There are moments like “Superblood Wolfmoon” and “Never Destination” that, while not bad, make you question why there was a yawning seven-year gap between albums. But there are more moments, like “Dance Of The Clairvoyants” and “Buckle Up,” that portray a reinvigorated band, beginning to reclaim the creative drive that fueled them through their rich middle years. At its best, Gigaton leans into a more nuanced, immersive side of Pearl Jam’s sound, with songs that bear the appropriate sense of awe when considering the dying breed of arena-rock drama they are still capable of conjuring as well as the natural landscapes that inform the album.

While it’s plausible to see Gigaton beginning a fourth era artistically, it’s doubtful that anyone else will register that besides the kind of long-time Pearl Jam fans who have an intimate connection with their career. It’s become increasingly hard to situate this band in the ecosystem today — many of their peers are gone, and they don’t really sound like true elder statesmen from prior decades, dutifully upholding the most classicist, original forms of rock music. As the ’90s became a bigger inspiration for young rock bands last decade, it was all the cooler, more indie-level versions of the ’90s; the grunge revivalists practiced a much punkier, scuzzier iteration of the genre than the stuff Pearl Jam or Soundgarden were playing at their peak. Pearl Jam long ago removed themselves from the conversation in many ways, but it’s nearly impossible to talk about Gigaton in relation to anything that’s going on now, certainly not in pop music and really not in any still-existent form of rock music. They have more or less become a context unto themselves.

Gigaton then, may suggest changes within Pearl Jam, but it might not change the story of Pearl Jam any more than their last several albums. At this point, they will remain one of the biggest bands in the world without feeling as if they are actually related to that many other bands currently releasing music. Each time, they will release an album, and fans will debate it, and things might sound somehow off at first, but people will grow to love the songs. They may return after another lengthy wait with a new topical premise, but ultimately their legacy will remain set. Still, in the end, maybe Gigaton hints at a return to those fertile times. It sounds like a Pearl Jam album, but not the one we might’ve expected, not the same manifestation the band had kept toying with since the mid-’00s. On some level, that’s enough.

Gigaton is out 3/27 on Republic. Pre-order it here.

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