“Take the reigns, steer us toward the clear…”
A lot can happen in two years. I’ve written on the time between Binaural and Riot Act before but, to summarise: nine fans were killed during the band’s performance at the 2000 Roskilde Festival – an abrupt full stop which found Pearl Jam questioning if they could continue, friend and fellow ‘grunge’ icon Layne Staley died, Eddie Vedder went through a divorce and, external to the band, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Bush administration shifted America’s landscape drastically.
Ahead of their first show following Roskilde, Eddie Vedder sat alone in his hotel room writing a song to “reassure myself that this is going to be all right.” ‘I Am Mine’, as Matt Cameron said, “has all the elements this band is known for: strong lyrics, strong hook, and a good sense of melody. It wasn’t a really tough decision to have that be the starting point for the record.”
Following the Binaural tour cycle, Pearl Jam took a short break – Matt Cameron’s Wellwater Conspiracy dropped it’s third album, Stone Gossard released the first ‘solo’ album from a Pearl Jam member (which he was in New York promoting on 9/11) and Vedder – having played five shows with Neil Finn and other musicians (later captured on the worth-checking-out Seven Worlds Collide) – disappeared off the grid for a year on a remote Hawaiian island where he connected with Boom Gaspar who was playing B3 at a musician’s wake. The two hooked up again a few days later and very quickly wrote an eleven minute tune that would become another key album track, ‘Love Boat Captain’.
When it came time to recording their new album, Pearl Jam chose to do so with Adam Kasper (who’s credits to that point included two albums for Foo Fighters, a Queens of the Stone Age album amongst others) at the suggestion of Matt Cameron as Kasper had also produced Soundgarden’s last album, Down on the Upside.
The resulting album is one of the lost gems in Pearl Jam’s catalogue. Riot Act has still – 16 years on – shifted less copies than Vs did in its first week alone. I know Pearl Jam fans who don’t know more than the couple of tunes that remain in modern setlists. As I’ve argued before and will continue to do so – they’re missing out. Stronger than Binaural, Riot Act benefits from Vedder having banished his writer’s block and having a much broader and emotional range of subjects to draw on and, frankly, get angry about -though Vedder has said that “If you think about it, it’s all very confusing and overwhelming to try to grasp it and put it all down.”
The album kicks off with ‘Can’t Keep’ – a tune that Vedder had played on the ukulele during a couple of solo shows (and would record as such on his own Ukulele Songs a few years later) that Gossard heard and enthused would be “killer” with the full band treatment and became a slow-burning thumper with buzzing, treated guitars that feels like a No Code song and leads into what is now a quite rare thing: a full band composition, ‘Save You’.
With lyrics that tackle addiction and the pain and frustration of seeing a close friend waste their life, ‘Save You’ is Mike McCready’s only writing credit on Riot Act and came about when he was sitting down with Stone Gossard (who contributed a fair bit song-writing wise) and “had two ideas, and one idea I worked really hard on and thought it was totally great and then I played it for him, and he goes, ‘Well, that’s not…well that’s okay. You got anything else?’ And so, the other thing I had was the “Save You” riff, and he goes, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ Ya know, so it’s…I was really built up to wanting to play this other song, and uh, nobody seemed to be very excited about it…”
‘Save You’ leans into the relentless, hard-edged rock sound that would blend seamlessly alongside tracks from Vitalogy as would the propulsive-beat driven ‘Green Disease.’ ‘Thumbing My Way’, meanwhile, is an acoustic ballad that showcases a change in direction for Vedder’s writing and is a clear signpost for what was to come with Into The Wild while ‘You Are’ is a personal favourite. Born out of expirmenting with a new drum machine that Matt Cameron had gotten hold of, it’s another great example of the band taking one member’s ideas and creating something memorable.
It would be impossible to talk about Riot Act without giving at least a passing mention to ‘Bu$hleaguer’. A dark, weaving satirical swipe, this was Pearl Jam at their most unambiguous politically and – while not much touched since – would regularly draw boos and jeers from certain clusters of the crowd when played live. Though even before the record was released there was no way to think Pearl Jam were Bush supporters so you’ve gotta wonder about the ‘shock’ it created.
Riot Act could very easily have been Pearl Jam’s greatest record. Reinvigorated and with a wealth of inspiration to draw on, there are some fantastic tunes on their seventh album (and there’s not many bands you can say that about). But… they should’ve taken a break. They sound a little tired and songs like ‘Ghost’ and ‘Help Help’ even sound tired. As much as I love the majority of Riot Act there are still 5 of its 15 songs I’ll skip more than listen through to and while that’s still a pretty signal to noise ratio (to borrow a phrase), when stacked against other works – it means it doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have done.
The odd thing is that had you cut those 5 songs and thrown in the ‘B’ sides recorded during these sessions – ‘Down’, ‘Undone’, and the brilliant ‘Otherside’ instead then Riot Act would have been one of their greatest albums.
However, there’s a sense of finality about Riot Act. In many ways it marks the end of a chapter for Pearl Jam – it would be four years before they’d release another album and, with Riot Act they completed their ‘studio’ obligations to Sony Music’s Epic Records with whom they had signed as Mookie Blaylock ahead of recording their debut Ten and, following their next tour, would take a much-needed break.