In February 1998 Pearl Jam released Yield. It marked something of a comeback for them; it was more straight-ahead than the wilfully restrained No Code, saw the band release their first music video since 1992 and, with the Ticket Master battle lost, marked a return to full-scale touring (documented on Live On Two Legs, released that November). At one sound check that autumn they recorded a song for that year’s fan club Christmas single*. When it began picking up airplay on radio the following year Pearl Jam’s cover of ‘Last Kiss’ soon went into heavy rotation and ended up hitting No. 2 on the charts, giving them their biggest hit to date.
They ‘d be entitled to take a break at this point, to catch their breath and attend to life off the road but then at this point they hadn’t quite learnt how to do that** and they carried on into the new millennium and a period which would see acclaim and sales diminish further than they had with the release of No Code and events that nearly marked the end of the band.
As companies the world over and religious sects and cults realised that the ticking of the clock into a new millennium meant neither massive technological meltdowns, raptures or Armageddons weren’t happening, all was not well in the Pearl Jam camp. The band’s not-so-secret weapon Mike McCready was battling addiction to painkillers and sessions for Binaural were marked by his absence as well as Eddie Vedder – who, though intensely guarded about his personal life, was experiencing both the worst case of writer’s block he’d encountered and divorce. As such, Vedder has since referred to the recording of Binaural as being “a construction job”.
Perhaps they should have taken that break. I mean, after all, Binaural shifted less than Yield and has still to make the million mark and Riot Act has still moved less than half of what Vs shifted in its first five days alone. Are they that bad? No, in short, they’re not. In fact I’m here to argue that for both the uninitiated and the initiated (I still know Pearl Jam fans that haven’t listened to Riot Act), there’s some real gems to be found in this era.
I’ll hold up Binaural‘s first single ‘Nothing As It Seems’ as an example. Written by bass player Jeff Ament, it started as a very dry, basic demo. He took it to McCready and told him that for the song to happen, the guitarist would need to go to town on it. He did.
Now perhaps I am a little biased in my views as Binaural was the first ‘new’ Pearl Jam release since I’d gotten into the band but I do love this song and while it’s most definitely a headphone album (thanks to the binaural recording technique you’ll need both buds in), live this one, like so many others, comes into its own and McCready’s work on it is guaranteed a rapturous response.
For my money – and I remember the surprised face on the tube on the way to see the band at Wembley when I voiced this opinion to those I was travelling with – Binaural is very much a second-half album. The faster songs that open it don’t quite suit the recording technique even with Brendan O’Brien’s mixing efforts but the second half, from ‘Light Years’ (itself a lovely song and one I’m always surprised by when it comes up on playlists – ‘how could I forget this one?’) on contains some of the juiciest things the band have put to tape.
‘Insignificance‘ is up there with ‘Corduroy’ as one of the band’s best mid-tempo rockers and I remember it ripping the roof off Wembley Arena. ‘Soon Forget’ marked the introduction of Vedder’s ukulele and cleared his writer’s block, ‘Of The Girl‘ – which started out as a bluesy riff from Stone – is the best use of the binaural recording technique on the album and ‘Sleight of Hand’, a mediation on being stuck in a routine and dissatisfied with one’s life, is the realisation of the band’s most art-rock aspirations with its effects and wall-of-sound blasts in the chorus:
In hindsight the band have come to regard Binaural as an album marked by distractions and missed opportunities, a lack of focus that meant the album lacked the power it could have had. Gossard, for his part, feels that they should’ve gotten more out of new drummer Matt Cameron – “It should have devastated in a way that Temple of the Dog devastated”. They just weren’t writing with him in mind. Jeff Ament goes further, believing that in cutting songs like ‘Sad’ and ‘Education’ “we look back and think we didn’t put some of the best songs on it.”
Indeed – released later on Lost Dogs – songs from the sessions like ‘Fatal‘, ‘Education’ ‘Sad’ would certainly have added a different angle to the album than, say, ‘God’s Dice’.
Upon release Binaural was received pretty favourably by the press and while the sales weren’t what they were used to be and radio had already shifted what little focus it had given the band to acts incorporating the scratch of turntables into rock, Pearl Jam did what they’ve always done – headed out onto the road. A tour of North America was lined up but, first, they’d venture to Europe to play a series of arena shows – I caught them when they played Wembley in May – and festivals including Pinkpop in the Netherlands and to Denmark to play the Roskilde festival.
During ‘Daughter’ the 50,000 strong crowd continued to surge forward. The band had made many a plea for the crowd to take a step back and, realising something was wrong, stopped playing. “It was chaos,” Vedder has said. “Some people were yelling ‘thank you.’ Others, who weren’t in bad shape, were running up and saying ‘hi.’ Then someone was pulled over, laid out and they were blue. We knew immediately it had gone on to that other level.”
Eight young men aged between 17 and 25 had been killed in the crush and bodies were being passed over the barricades as the band and fans stood and watched in horror. A ninth man would die in hospital five days later.
The remainder of the European tour was cancelled and, not knowing how to move forward, the members of Pearl Jam considered retiring.
*Since 1991 the band have released a fan-club-only single every holiday season (with the exception of 1994)
**When Jack Irons joined the band he was both impressed and surprised by their work ethic. Work on No Code had kicked off during a heat wave and immediately after a massive show. Iron’s was understandably knackered and, frankly, fancied a rest. The band didn’t yet know the importance of doing so and were too keen to keep pushing forward with the momentum and energy of the tour.