Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Binaural

“We’d rather challenge our fans and make them listen to our songs than give them something that’s easy to digest. There is a lot of music out there that is very easy to digest but we never wanted to be part of it.”

I have a real soft spot for Binaural: I got into the band a year after Yield so this was both the first Pearl Jam album I bought on day of release – as well as the singles for ‘Nothing As It Seems’ and ‘Light Years’ – and the album they were touring behind when I caught them live.

Not only that but I do genuinely believe that there are some real gems on Binaural that, due to its relative low commercial performance, don’t get the recognition they deserve. So much so that I’ve already blogged about this album in a lot more detail here.

But, for all that, in terms of where it sits in preference levels to the rest of the band’s discography – not all that high. Of the highs – this album has an unimpeachable mid-section of ‘Light Years’, ‘Nothing as it Seems,’ ‘Thin Air’ and ‘Insignificance’ but that section is buffered by some pretty dense sounds.

Some of this was on purpose, with the band’s decision to change things up with Tchad Black (as the band moved away from producer Brendan O’Brien for the first time since Vs) recording many of the album’s songs employ two microphones to create a 3-D stereophonic sound.

On some songs – notably ‘Of The Girl’ this layered, textured sound works wonders. Elsewhere, the sound quality and mixes just don’t feel right. Looking back, even band members 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.”

But, it was the band’s first venture into the studio with Matt Cameron and, while he made an immediate contribution to songwriting with ‘Evacuation’ (not one of the album’s strongest) and a few tracks left on the cutting floor, the in-studio chemistry wasn’t quite there. They were working with a new producer for the first time, Mike McCready was battling an addiction to painkillers that saw him absent from many a session and Vedder – also in the middle of a marriage breakdown – was plagued by a case of writer’s block that got so bad he had to be stopped from picking up an instrument and writing more music until he had completed lyrics to those songs already piling up and waiting for them. As the man himself told Spin magazine following the album’s release:

“It’s bad when you have writer’s block in the studio and you’ve got three songs without words and four days left. It pretty much happened on the last record. And the worst part was they were songs that I had written. I had written the music to “Insignificance” and “Grievance”. I just wasn’t happy with what I had so I kept working on it and scrapping it and staying up at night, playing piano melodies to make it be the best thing. And it worked, finally. That causes hell in a relationship, that’s all I’ll tell you”

Unfortunately, none of these are ingredients for a great album.

On the plus side – this meant more opportunity for contributions from other band members than on previous albums with three songs and lyrics written entirely by Gossard  ‘Thin Air’, ‘Of the Girl’ and ‘Rival’ alongside Ament’s ‘God’s Dice’ and ‘Nothing As It Seems’.

Binaural is, in many ways, a missed opportunity. Pearl Jam, for all their ‘year or no’ decisions that lead to a cessation of music videos, a reluctance to give interviews or -for a large chunk of time – playing at Ticket Master rep’d venues,  were still in the album-tour-album-tour-album cycle. It would be a while before they’d learn to take a break and I can’t help but wonder if, had they taken just a little longer between Yield and their next album to attend to their own personal lives and breath a little, if Binaural wouldn’t have been their greatest. The ideas are all here, the parts are all right there with em but the final execution just misses the mark.

But – it’s still very very much worth a listen and is one of the few albums for which I’ve broken my ‘if I already have it on CD I won’t by it on vinyl too’ rule for. Oh, and it also introduced Ukulele Ed with ‘Soon Forget’ – a song that, when he was still a baby, I would sing quietly (minus the uke) as a lullaby to my son at nights and, so, ranks as a real personal favourite.

Highlights: ‘Light Years, Nothing As It Seems, Thin Air, Of the Girl, Grievance, Sleight of Hand, Soon Forget

Not-so highlights: ‘God’s Dice’, ‘Evacuation’.

14 thoughts on “Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Binaural

  1. I’m awfy fond of this one, but you share the same view as a pal of mine (I think this may be his least liked). Personally, I think this is one of their best, because it’s a reflection of the band at that particular time. While the songs aren’t always strong, they mostly are, and the sound is spot on.

    I also think the contributions from Gossard and Ament are strong, too (but then, I like a lot of their non-Pearl Jam work).

    In fact, I reckon it’s one of their finest and I’m gonna go listen to it!

    • It’s a well-listened to album for me especially since getting it on vinyl too. Gossard’s songs on here are some of his finest contributions

      • I’ve been tempted to pick up a few Pearl Jam vinyl reissues. I nabbed No Code when it was released and Yield, Binaural, and Riot Act are on the list. But there’s always something else.

        I’d be interested in hearing how this would have turned out had Vedder’s input been really limited… to, y’know, just singing the songs the rest had brought in.

        Do you like Ament’s other projects? I honestly reckon he’s the most interesting of the bunch…

      • I only pick them up when that big online place named after a river drops the price to £12.
        Haven’t really ventured into the solo projects (Vedder aside), it’s on the to-do list but nothing I’ve heard has grabbed me enough to speed that up

      • I think Tres Mts. is pretty great, as is RNDM (with Joseph Arthur).

        Gossard’s first studio album is one of my favourites, too. As is the first Brad album.

  2. I think I told you that I liked this one. Probably the one i pull out the most. Doesn’t make it my favorite, it’s just in the spin cycle. I’m listening to Husker Du and I hear a few similarities.

    • I’ve yet to get into Husker Du. I think it’s like may a think – it has to catch you at the right moment and I don’t think it’s done so thus far but there’s plenty of daylight left to try

      • Not an easy listening music but if it grabs you it is worth it. I seen Bob Mould on Austin City a few years ago and he was great. Catchgroove did a good take on his latest album ‘Patch the Sky’. I’m not up on Pearl Jams history but I’m pretty sure they will throw a nod towards Husker.

  3. Pearl Jam is what I call, for me, a radio band. I bought one album a while ago (can’t remember what it was) but mostly I enjoy them enough on the radio but tend not to buy their stuff. So I only know what I hear on the radio and didn’t even know this album. But boy, despite your reservations, I liked what I heard. So much so that I started a Spotify playlist and started putting some tunes on it. Pretty much everything you highlighted and now I’m off listening to ‘Light Years.’ BTW, a couple of the songs wouldn’t play for me so I had to go find other versions on YouTube. I look forward to the rest of the series and having a nice playlist to enjoy.

    • Oh, don’t get me wrong; I really like this album. As a Pearl Jam fan it will always get steady rotation and I think the signal-to-noise ratio on this still means the bulk of it is a good listen and there’ll be a good few on the playlist at the end of this series.

      • Understood. Really liked what I heard. But that should give you some idea of what a feeble PJ fan I am. I knew exactly zero songs from an old album.

  4. Believe it or not, this was my introduction to Pearl Jam. I’d grown up listening in my little homeschooled, Christian Rock bubble. Then a friend of mine and I started jamming together and sharing music and he blew my mind by sharing Pearl Jam and Radiohead with me. I have a real soft spot for this record. They were very much a band in transition. They were trying to challenge themselves and their fans while also trying to stay true to what the band was. On the whole, it isn’t what it could be, but this album has some seriously good material as well.

  5. Pingback: Least to Most: Pearl Jam – “I’m already cut up and half dead” | Mumbling About…

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