“It’s a record that is semi-unprofessional. We were just kind of winging it and trying stuff that maybe didn’t quite work… But you listen to it ten years later and go, ‘Fuck! That’s jamming!'”
July 12th 1995, in the middle of a heatwave in Chicago (one that accounted for 739 heat-related deaths in five days), Pearl Jam were feeling the itch. The night before they had played a massive 31-song set to 47,000 fans at the city’s Soldier Field and wanted to make the most of the energy from the show (and Vitalogy tour), they entered a studio at Chicago Recording Company to lay down some songs for their next album. No rest for the wicked. Jeff Ament would later admit that “I don’t think we’d quite figured out how to schedule ourselves at that point.” They were there for a week with songs like ‘Off He Goes’ and ‘In My Tree’ coming from those sessions.
Recording proper for No Code picked up in the start of 1996 and marked the start of a tense period for the band. For one thing, Jeff Ament didn’t know that work was underway until three days into sessions and “wasn’t super involved with that record on any level.” Meanwhile there were persistent rumours of a power-struggle within Pearl Jam – that Eddie was taking control of the band over Stone and Jeff with Ament even walking out of sessions on several occasions on what he perceived as Vedder’s stifling of his own writing. Whereas the bass player now says that “really what was happening was that Ed was bringing in complete songs and nobody else was. The cream was floating to the top.”
Vedder was hitting new pay dirt as a songwriter – writing increasingly personal and reflective songs as well as making jumps in his melody and hook writing. ‘Off He Goes’ is actually a song as an apology for his being a shit friend.
A look at the songwriting credits shows that a large chunk of No Code‘s songs are all-Vedder and the singer was behind every lyric with the exception of Stone Gossard’s ‘Mankind’.
Meanwhile the band were still playing shows. Jack Irons pointed out that “It was difficult to tour and play these shows that were two or three hours long and then force ourselves to produce something in a studio,” while Brendan O’Brien (behind the desk for his third Pearl Jam album) would also add that “Ed’s typically the guy who finishes off the songs…But by the end of No Code, he was so burnt, it was so much work for him.”
Why were the band so tired? It could be down to the strain of the Vitalogy tour – this was their first without playing Ticketmaster venues which meant a huge amount of work went into organising every show, something that Gossard stated took the fun out of being in the band. It could be the fact that in 1995 the band, minus Vedder, had backed Neil Young on his Mirror Ball album and European tour. It could also be the fact that this was the band’s fourth album in just five years – No Code and Ten were both released five years apart to the day – and they simply hadn’t stopped since.
BUT. But but but…. No Code is, despite all this, a fucking awesome album and one that is bristling with their finest songs. It’s not a first-listen album. It was the third Pearl Jam album I bought as I’d love ‘Red Mosquito’ so much after hearing it on Live on Two Legs – this was pre-Amazon and when you could only really get what the music shop had in on a given day or order specific titles – and it took me a while to grow to love this album as much as I do but every time I do I hear more and more that blows me away.
The only reason I don’t say out-and-out that this is their finest is that I genuinely feel the sound-quality detracts from these songs. It could be the fact they were deliberately trying to take the commercial edge off (Kurt Cobain and In Utero have a lot to answer for) or – as Brendan O’Brien would point out – the issues and technical hiccups from working at Stone Gossard’s Studio Litho. But the songs sound restrained, even tired – no real surprise. Mike McCready would later say “I think we kind of rushed it a little bit” as the songs were more jam-session than finished but his and Vedder’s ‘Present Tense’ is easily in my Pearl Jam Top Five and always elicits a suitable rapturous response when played live:
Oddly enough, when the band almost re-made No Code with Yield a couple of years later with a deliberately accessible sound and more sharing of the songwriting, the sound was perfect but the songs weren’t quite as strong.
Speaking of strong, No Code isn’t all experimentation. There’s a volley of some of Pearl Jam’s fiercest rockers on amongst its thirteen tracks with Hail Hail’, ‘Lukin’ and ‘Habit’.
From it’s hushed opener ‘Sometimes’ – compared to the forceful openings of the three previous albums – to the roaring ‘Habit’ and ‘Lukin’ via the tribal rhythms of ‘In My Tree’ and up to the sedate closer ‘Around The Bend’, No Code is Pearl Jam’s most diverse record and one of their strongest collection of songs. If only the sound / mix were as clear as it deserved to be this would be top of this list every day for me.