From the PR: “Sebastian James Murphy is twenty years, six months and two days old. He loves swimming, fried eggs and Billy Ocean. Sebastian is autistic. And lonely. Veronica wants her son Sebastian to be happy, and she wants the world to accept him for who he is. She is also thinking about paying a professional to give him what he desperately wants.
Violetta is a high-class escort, who steps out into the night thinking only of money. Of her nursing degree. Paying for her dad’s care. Getting through the dark.
When these three lives collide, and intertwine in unexpected ways, everything changes. For everyone.
Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, This Is How We Are Human is a powerful, moving and thoughtful drama about a mother’s love for her son, about getting it wrong when we think we know what’s best, about the lengths we go to care for family and to survive.”
Louise Beech recently shared Strong Words Magazine’s review of This Is How We Are Human with its three word summary of “Autism / prostitution interface.” That’s gotta be a pretty unique description but then this is a pretty unique – and bloody great – novel.
In fact, This Is How We Are Human might just be Louise Beech’s best novel yet – it’s just so deliciously engrossing and nigh on impossible to put down. The characters are so beautifully rendered and compelling, their voices so vital and genuine. Louise Beech has a way of nailing emotions that puts her work on a different level, it infuses her characters and gets you invested in them real early on.
This is How We Are Human is Louise Beech’s seventh book, and with each of the previous five I’ve had the pleasure to read I’ve ascertained that reading one of Louise’s novels is akin to watching a Pixar film: you know that there’s gonna be an emotional punch to the delicates but you get so lost in the story and characters that you forget and then it really flaws you. This one is no exception. The emotional gamut run through the final few chapters – from edge of seat, ‘holy crap, no!’ to the heart tugging end – is her best yet.
But I’m skipping ahead a bit here… while the novel starts at the almost-end, I’d be remiss to talk about the emotional kick-in-the-pills of the ending without saying that getting there is an absolute sodding joy.
Yes it’s a bloody emotional read, tackles some heavyweight subject matter head on and with genuine skill but, perhaps most importantly, This is How We Are Human has a brilliantly compelling story line with a split narrative style that adds more punch and hook, told as it is through three key character povs, the most masterfully written of course being that of Sebastian. With this narrative Louise has given an authentic and powerful voice to someone who’s voice is often not even considered let alone heard.
There are some shocking moments in This Is How We Are Human, there are some tender moments, some painful emotional reveals and, this being a Louise Beech novel after all, some wickedly sharp and funny moments. But then that, appropriately, is the human experience and, novel after novel, Louise Beech just gets better and better at chronicling it. I’m already looking forward to her next book.
My thanks once again to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy of This is How We Are Human and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.
1993: John Hammond spared no expense on his dinosaur theme park, Bill Murray lived the same day over and over, Harrison Ford searched for a one-armed man, Robin Williams looked like a lady (dude) and Matthew McConaughey loved high-school girls, man – “I get older, they stay the same age.”
In music it was the year that Whitney Houston dominated the charts singing about her favourite form of coordination (hand – eyeeeeeeee), DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince shook the room, Lenny Kravitz needed to know which way we were going, Bruce Springsteen showed MTV who was Boss by taking his electric guitar to his Unplugged performance and Meat Loaf left us all wondering just what it was he wouldn’t do for love*.
It was the year that the BBC Radio 5 interviewed Frank Black and found out that Pixies were finished… ahead of the other band members knowing. Black would call guitarist Joey Santiago to break the news but let Kim Deal and David Lovering know via fax. New Order, Skin Yard (influential Seattle band featuring producer / engineer Jack Endino), Echo & The Bunnymen and, er, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch also called it a day in 1993. However – on the bands formed side; this was the year that gave birth to At The Drive-In, Ben Folds Five, Daft Punk, Embrace, Garbage, Jimmy Eat World, Modest Mouse, Reef, Spoon, Supergrass and Wilco.
It was also a bumper year for great albums, plenty of which still feature heavy on rotation here. Fairly new discovery for me, Band of Susans dropped their fourth album Veil which tour off into a more experimental direction just as contemporaries Sonic Youth were steering toward song-focused albums. It’s a tricky one to define – it’s like a glorious hybrid of the noise-rock school that SY emerged from with punches of alternative rock and shoegaze mixed into what one critic called an “epic swell of guitar and noise:”
Speaking of shoegaze; Slowdive released their second, possibly finest, album Souvlaki in 1993. Dinosaur Jr released their phenomenal Where You Been – a real scorcher probably aided by the fact that it was recorded with a full band though it would be drummer Murph’s last with the band until the original lineup reconvened over a decade later. However, Dinosaur Jr classics ‘What Else Is New’, ‘Start Choppin’ ‘Get Me’ and ‘Out There’ all feature on this album though I should probably state that I don’t think Dinosaur Jr have ever made a bad album.
Not an outright classic in itself, though one with at least four good songs on it, Radiohead’s debut album Pablo Honey arrived in 1993 and introduced the world to the band via the inescapable ‘Creep’ while Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? marked the arrival of The Cranberries.
Having already asked us once, Lenny Kravitz repeated the question by naming his third album Are You Gonna Go My Way? – while Mama Said edges it in my books, it’s still a blast of the good stuff, as was Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen also released in 1993. Picking up on the experimentation with electronic and dancier vibes of Achtung Baby and running with it, U2 released the oft-overlooked Zooropa in 1993. Very much a different trip to anything else in their catalogue, Zooropa began life as an EP to promote another leg of the Zoo TV tour, Bono figured he’d push for a full album instead… it would be easy to say it does feel like an over-stuffed EP but there’s plenty of great tunes on it that make it well worth adding to the shelves including the title track, The Wanderer which featured Johnny Cash before his American comeback and ‘Stay (Farwa, So Close!)’:
PJ Harvey released her brilliant second album, Rid of Me and Kate Bush chose 1993 as the year for The Red Shoes which was not only her first album for four years but would be her last for another 12.
With Pixies having broken up at the start of the year, Kim Deal’s the Breeders dropped their second and most well-known album Last Splash in August and the single ‘Cannonball’ becoming their biggest ‘hit’ and propelling the album to platinum status. Meanwhile, having recorded it in 1992, Frank Black released his self-titled debut in 1993 as well. Still close to the sound of Pixies in many ways (including additional guitar work from Joey Santiago), Frank Black is a great album packed with great tunes that build on the Pixies sound.
Speaking of solo albums following the dissolution of great bands – Paul Westerberg’s first solo album 14 Songs also arrived in 1993 – it’s another cracking collection of songs that I still play and have expanded upon on this very blog. Also making a solo debut, though I don’t think The Sugarcubes would be mentioned in the same breath as either The Replacements or Pixies, Bjork’s Debut also appeared this year, featuring the brilliant tunes ‘Human Behaviour’ and ‘Big Time Sensuality’. It was also debut time for Sheryl Crow who’s Tuesday Night Music Club was released in August 1993. I tuned in around this time and while I have more fondness for he next couple of albums there’s no denying that Ms Crow’s debut has both a great sound in terms of production – very much of its time – and is stacked with great tunes like ‘Run Baby Run’, ‘All I Wanna Do’, ‘Can’t Cry Anymore’ and ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ to name but four.
Now… here’s the thing. The above are undeniably strong albums and they’re all very much regulars on my stereo to this day. And yet there’s more and choosing between them is a tough one for me. See, 1993 heralded the arrival of Pearl Jam’s second album Vs. which is one of my favourite Pearl Jam albums – but I’ve covered that one at length as well so can’t feature it here too (rules are rules).
When it comes to staggeringly good debut albums, Counting Crows’ August and Everything After has got to be high on the list. AllMusic suitably claims this album “burst(s) at the seams with both dominant pop harmonies and rich, hearty ballads” – there’s just so much on this that – especially in the age of CD bloat – it’s all wrapped up within 11 tracks. It’s such a rich feast in terms of both the sound (thanks to T Bone Burnett’s production) but with beautiful melodies and lyrics that pack so much into them without becoming lost in a wash of words for the sake of it as some of Duritz’ later songs would. I must have spun this album more times than I could count and I still never skip a track, though perhaps ‘Omaha’ doesn’t get as much attention as, say, ‘Anna Begins’, it’s such a great album…
Then there’s the second album from Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream also one of my favourite albums. It was a massive leap forward for the band and really threw their hat into the ring as one of the foremost alternative bands of the nineties. Songs like ‘Today’, ‘Cherub Rock’, ‘Disarm’ are amongst those that are appropriately considered hallmarks of the genre. Produced by Butch Vig, who was riding high following his production of Nevermind, Siamese Dream is not only the Smashing Pumpkins’ finest, one of the best albums of the 90’s but one that belongs on Greatest Album lists full stop.
However, also released in 1993…
Nirvana – In Utero
It would be virtually impossible for me to choose between some of the above – especially the last three – albums from 1993 were it not for the fact that Nirvana’s finest and, sadly, final album was also released in the same year as so many strong contenders for the crown. But, on September 21, 1993 – having been recorded by Steve Albini over two weeks in February.
Interesting side note and one fact that I always find interesting is that Steve Albini – known as a producer of independent releases and for his band Big Black – took a flat fee of $100,000 for his work recording and producing In Utero despite suggestions from Nirvana’s management company to take percentage points on record sales. I think, though my recollection may be fuzzy, when Dave Grohl mentioned how much he could’ve made from the album given that the album has shifted over 5 million, Albini said something along the lines of “you pay a plumber for the job when he does it, you don’t then send him a cheque every time your taps work”.
In Utero is a notably harder and rawer sounding album than Nevermind was. As sales for everything out of Seattle took off and media focused its attention on the city’s ‘scene’, the foremost proponents of ‘grunge’ were obviously getting pissed off with it – Pearl Jam’s Vs. is a far punchier and angrier beast than Ten – and Cobain himself was distancing himself from what he saw as the commercial sheen of his group’s second album. For a scene that grew out of the punk movement, it must have seen a necessary step to proving that you weren’t ‘corporate rock sellouts’. Either way, the albums the shift produced were outstanding.
With Albini’s mix seeming to cause concern at Geffen – Kurt would say “The grown-ups don’t like it” – the band themselves started to have doubts and asked Albini to remix it. He refused: “Kurt wanted to make a record that he could slam down on the table and say, ‘Listen, I know this is good, and I know your concerns about it are meaningless, so go with it.’ And I don’t think he felt he had that yet … My problem was that I feared a slippery slope.” With Albini nixing a remix, it would be Scott Litt (known for his work with R.E.M) that would remix and augment a number of the album’s tracks. For all the concern that Geffen’s initial feedback had raised, Litt only worked on two songs – the rest of the album was left as is, save for a little raising of the vocals and sharpening of the bass. They needn’t have fretted: preceded by the single ‘Heart Shaped Box’, In Utero topped the charts (not that this was the band’s chief concern) and received widespread acclaim from critics and their audience.
For me this album is as good as it gets in terms of Nirvana – it felt like they were at the peak of their game. Cobain’s continuing growth as a songwriter now matched with the passion and ‘punk’ leaning of their first record was the perfect combination. Tighter than a duck’s arse thanks to the touring and promotion of Nevermind with Dave Grohl now fully ensconced behind the drums and contributing the guitar riff for ‘Scentless Apprentice’, In Utero feels like fired up answer to any critics that doubted them as a flash in the pan.
Rolling Stone managed to get it right in their review: In Utero is “a lot of things – brilliant, corrosive, enraged and thoughtful, most of them all at once. But more than anything, it’s a triumph of the will.”
Of course, it also manages to capture just how dark and nihilistic Cobain’s lyrics were getting. It’s front-loaded with the blazers – ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Rape Me’ and ‘Dumb’ – but then there’s the harsher side of the album – songs like ‘Milk It’ and ‘Very Ape’ and, finally, ‘All Apologies’: “Everything’s my fault, I take all the blame.” Kurt was coming apart almost by the day and it’s all on here to hear.
Hindsight is though, of course, 20-20 and it’s easy now to listen to Nirvan’s final album and point to the signs. At the time, though, nobody could have known. It was, and still is, ‘just’ a massively engaging and powerful album not a cry for help or suicide note and that’s how it should be remembered.
I’d love to know where the band could have gone from here. The ‘You Know You’re Right’ song from the compilation Nirvana gives promise for an even better sound than In Utero but given Cobain’s state of mind toward the end it’s an unanswerable question – numerous times he talked of, and drafted letters to band members calling for, the dissolution of Nirvana. He was going to work with Michael Stipe on a strings-based sound for an album… he could have done so many things but… well, this isn’t that post. In Utero is the glorious sound of Nirvana doing everything right even if it isn’t the easiest of listens.
Here we are at the end of another (my third to date) Least to Most series.
What’s been learned:
That when I tackle this series on an album by album basis this is a pretty consuming mission when combined with that other thing called ‘life’. And yet I already find myself looking at my shelves and wondering who’s next (it’s not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure).
Pearl Jam are fucking awesome. But then that shouldn’t be a lesson to anyone.
For my money, these blokes were at their finest between 1993-1998.
I still think they have at least one great album in them despite recent evidence.
For those playing along at home, the Least to Most favourite list broke down like this:
8. Lightning Bolt
7. Riot Act
6. Pearl Jam
3. No Code
That’s today. Well, that’s how I eventually settled the list (after five drafts). Ask me again in a few months that might change. Ask me again when the next studio album eventually drops and it may be all change again.
For my money, if you want a good single, cover-all bases Pearl Jam album you’ll struggle with just one disc but if you get your hands on the Vs. & Vitalogy re-release box you’ll get two of their best and Live at the Orhpeum Theatre which is a fierce, powerful live disc that captured the band live between the two albums and is packed with cuts from Ten and a few rarities too.
Still, for more of what I’d recommend, and as a tip of the hat to Jim over at Music Enthusiast whose playlists are the stuff of curator envy, here’s my Pearl Jam ‘essentials’ playlist wherein I try and cherry pick the best of the band’s ten studio (and one rarities) albums and still end up with sixty tunes. Play in order or play in random but, hopefully, enjoy:
“This song is about… uh… people who don’t have taste but they like us anyway. It’s called ‘Not For You'”
If Vs. was the sound of Pearl Jam taking control, Vitalogy, released just a year later, is the sound of the band giving a big middle finger to anyone who hand’t got the message yet. Rougher, rawer and more eclectic than anything they’d either released to date or since with songs born out of jam sessions as the communication between band members started to falter, with “eighty percent of the songs were written 20 minutes before they were recorded” according to Stone Gossard. It’s stripped down, it’s lean and uncompromising and marks the first time Pearl Jam would really start to experiment. It’s rife with hostility and tension aimed both outward and inward as, three albums in, cracks began to show within relationships to the point that, while Gossard thought of quitting, drummer Dave Abbruzzese would actually be let go as sessions wound down.
Again – it shouldn’t be good. It shouldn’t be cohesive but it’s not only good: it’s their finest album yet – in my opinion and this is my Least to Most after all. As 1993 tumbled into 1994, Pearl Jam were hitting their songwriting peak and the songs on Vitalogy bristle with an energy that wouldn’t be matched again for a while and certainly not with the level of consistency found here.
The songs here form the template for all Pearl Jam songs to come – there’s the balls-out angry and heavy, there’s the flexing of creative / experimental muscle, the achingly poignant and the perfect mid-tempo. All summised in one rough-hewn gem of an album.
So – you want the balls-out angry and fast? Take that opening volley of songs:’Last Exit’, ‘Spin the Black Circle’ and ‘Not For You’:
As middle fingers to the label go, Pearl Jam chose ‘Spin the Black Circle’, much to Epic’s dismay, as the first single from Vitalogy. “See this needle, Oh see my hand, Drop, drop, dropping it down, oh so gently, here it comes, touch the flame, turn me up, won’t turn you away” is an homage to vinyl and was supposed to sound completely different – it’s a Stone Gossard riff that Vedder first heard at the wrong pitch: “I had come up with something in my truck with the tape player in my hand, but then I realized it was playing at a superhigh pitch. I turned it down, and it was really slow. I was like ‘Oh, fuck.”
‘Not for You’, meanwhile is as openly blunt and angry about the co-opting of the alternative scene as the band would be – save for the time Jeff Ament spotted Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui (who had released a ‘grunge’ line of clothes) and “I went down and did a fake fashion twirl and went ‘Hey Marc, what do you think of this for the next line?’ ” It’s hard to comprehend now in a way but I guess when Ricky Martin is cast on General Hospital as a clone of you – you’re gonna get pissed off. It also burns through ‘Corduroy’ (perfect mid-tempo) with it’s line “they can buy but can’t put on my clothes”:
Both ‘Not for You’ and ‘Corduroy’ are sole Vedder compositions. Vitalogy – dipping back to those inner band tensions mentioned – marked the first Pearl Jam album where Vedder’s songs would by far outweigh those of the other members. Half of the songs here (you can’t really count ‘Aye Davanita’ or ‘Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me’ as songs) are marked as Vedder / Vedder on the lyrics / music front.
Vedder’s “it wasn’t a hostile takeover” caused issues in the group. Stone Gossard was said to have considered leaving as he was no longer the guy who made the final decisions on tunes and vacated his role as mediator within the group (something which Dave Abbruzzese has credited to his departure). With hindsight Jeff Ament has stated that it was simply a case that Vedder was working harder at writing songs than the rest of the band – McCready would enter rehab to receive treatment for alcohol and cocaine abuse during sessions too. “I still don’t know if he was consciously exerting wanting to take over the band or take the reins or the the power. I think it was more like, ‘Hey, man, I’ve got seven complete songs here. What do you guys have?’ and we only had little riffs or two-parter things.”
Of those Vedder / Vedder songs are the achingly poignant Immortality and, of course, one of the band’s most well known:
I’ve probably heard this song live on the numerous shows I have in my iTunes. These days when it’s played live it’s not really the same song but the original is still an out and out classic especially considering its troubled and lengthy gestation as a Pearl Jam studio song. Vedder, fearing it was too raw and direct in terms of emotion, was never happy with how it had been recorded (the band had first tried getting it on tape for Vs.) and, at one point, came close to giving it to Chrissie Hynde to record instead. As it is he changed the final mix for ‘Betterman’ right at the last.
The creative: perhaps too wary of releasing quite so many obviously strong and high-pedigree songs on one album, Pearl Jam used Vitalogy to drop some of their, frankly, weirdest shit to date too. So, following up the beautiful Ament / Vedder collab, ‘Nothingman’…
… is ‘Pry To’
While what could have been a one-two-punch knockout of ‘Betterman’ and ‘Immortality’ is softened by the slotting of ‘Aye Davanita’ between them – it’s “just screwing around” with chanted non-lyrics that O’Brien looped. Then again, there’s something charming about ‘Bugs’ which Vedder, suffering from poison at the time, plays an off-tune accordion.
Then again, perhaps I’m overthinking it. Maybe they really just did like those interludes. But let’s look at it this way: if Vitalogy had been stripped of those and released as a ten track album comprising of songs like ‘Corduroy’, ‘Betterman’, ‘Nothingman’, ‘Last Exit’, ‘Spin the Black Circle’ etc… even with the lean produciton behind them, there’d have been no real way for them to get away from it or say no so easily.
As it is, glorious rough-hewn warts and all, Vitalogy is my favourite Pearl Jam album.
It wasn’t intended or planned but – Pearl Jam’s Vs. was actually released 25 years ago today on October 19th, 1993. Crikey.
Back in 1993 in those wonderful days when a certain orange idiot was merely an occasional media presence and music news came periodically rather than by-the-second with inside access and selfies and… yep, I’m coming up on a birthday too so am feeling a sense of reminisce for those days of my youth when this was what new music sounded like.
To say I love Vs. would be a solid bet. It’s at number 2 on this list, today. Tomorrow it could be number 1. So here are lot of reasons why I think Vs is just the mutt’s nuts.
It was huge but in the lexicon of Pearl Jam’s discography and longevity is now something of a forgotten album, falling between the cracks between Ten and the shift in gears and stepping back from the spotlight that Vitalogy (yes, spoiler alert, more on which to follow) and wars with Ticketmaster would herald. At the time of release it set a new record for most copies of an album sold in its first week (950,378) and would hold that for five years*.
Dave Abbruzzesse is all over this album. Dave Abbruzzesse was an odd fit in terms of personality but an unimpeachable drummer for Pearl Jam. At a time when Eddie was struggling with the onslaught of fame and trying to step back and the band seemed at their most painfully angsty/earnest, Dave Abbruzzesse just wanted to enjoy the success. A Rolling Stone profile written that year, the drummer would point out that “when I was younger and I heard about a band selling a million records, I thought the band would get together and jump up and down for at least a minute,” he says with a wide-open East Texas laugh, “and just go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it.’ But it doesn’t happen that way [in this band]. Me, I flip out. I jump up and down by myself.”
At the time this wasn’t where messrs Vedder, Ament, Gossard and McCready were. Well, definitely no Ed Vedd who was painfully serious at the time. It’s hard to judge, of course, because I’ve never written an album that sells millions of copies within a year, but I think the judgement of peers for doing so (Fugazi, Cobain** etc) perhaps made the band afraid of lightening up and desperate to appear more serious. For my money, Abbruzzesse’s inability to not smile and appear an amiable chap in band photos stopped the band disappearing up it’s own bum at the time.
As a drummer he was an immense tour de force and his drumming is what pushes Vs. along and is missing from these songs when performed live. Oh, and he also wrote the music for ‘Go’:
Go is about Eddie’s truck – well, apparently. While it sounds like it’s probably about something more serious, the lyrics were apparently written about Vedder’s truck – the band were making serious money but not spending or living like ‘rock stars’ – which he would often sleep in an effort to stay feeling ‘hungry’ and would often stall and threaten to quit.
Vs. is one of their most on target / consistent albums to date. The aforementioned Rolling Stone article, written before the album’s name was decided, stated that “Pearl Jam is the band’s turf statement, a personal declaration of the importance of music over idolatry.” Vs feels like a mission statement. It’s the most straight-ahead and consistent of tone album in their catalogue, rivaled, oddly enough, only by Pearl Jam. From the opener ‘Go’ via ‘Animal’, ‘Blood’ and ‘Leash’ to the closing ‘Inidfference’, there’s little deviance in style and minimal experimentation, a lot of fierce rockers and aggression thrown in. And every song is strong.
There’s barely a break in pace between the opening salvo of ‘Go’ and ‘Animal’ – save for the acoustic driven ‘Daughter’ which is hardly a slow song, and ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In A Small Town’ (the very title of which is an outright joke at the band’s own habit of one-word song titles) – which makes ‘Indifference’ so much more of a powerful closer.
It was the beginning of saying “no” for part of Pearl Jam’s mission statement and way of coping with the assault of getting so big so fast was to push back. They began to saying no and taking control in an effort to prolong the band’s lifespan. The video for ‘Jeremy’ had become so ubiquitous at the time that the band, particularly Ament, were fighting hard against their songs being remembered only as a video. Having drawn the line at allowing a video for ‘Black’, they started realising they could say no to requests. Requests like ‘can you raise Eddie’s vocals?’, ‘can you choose a director for a video?’ ‘can we schedule an interview with…?’ would be met with ‘no’s and ‘not really’s from here on in and Vs. feels like an aggressive stab at forging a new path.
Collaboration rules, or at least it did at the time of Vs. Only two of the twelve cuts on Vs. are sole Vedder compositions. Much like Ten before it, most of Vs was written as a collaborative effort with Vedder providing the lyrics. Perhaps this is why so many of the songs are as strong as they are: tighter than a duck’s arse after touring behind Ten and brimming with ideas, most of the songs on the album were born out of jam sessions with as much recorded live as possible. As Stone Gossard pointed out: “I think we allowed things to develop in a more natural, band-oriented sort of way, rather than me bringing in a bunch of stuff that was already arranged.” It feels organic and it feels like a real band album and benefits from a lot more involvement in songwriting from Mike McCready too, take ‘Glorified G’:
‘Glorified G’ is a direct mocking of Dave Abbruzzessebut he dominates it nonetheless. ‘Glorified G’ – based on a McCready riff – was another song born out of a collaborative jam session but it’s anti-gun stance was born out of Vedder’s reaction to Dave’s ownership: “I was at a band rehearsal and just started writing down these things the guys were talking about. The band were having this conversation and I just took down the dialogue. One of the band members had just bought a gun. It was the drummer, actually. Ask him about it.”
So, if you asked Dave he’d have said: “I told our manager that I just bought a coupla guns and he told Jeff, and at rehearsal Jeff kinda blurted it out. And Eddie went, ‘Whaaaat, you bought a GUN?’ And I said, ‘In fact, I bought two,’ which ended up as the opening line of the song. I think it’s fair to say Eddie was pretty outraged.”
The odd thing is that this song rocks because of Abbruzzesse’s power. Even live – check out the performance on the Live at the Orpheum that accompanied the rerelease of this album and Vitalogy – he’s ON. Whether Vedder’s angered swipe at him either motivated him to play harder out of ‘fuck you too’ or he was just too easy going to really give a fuck we’ll never really know.
It is rammed with some of their best and most well-loved songs. Seriously, take a look at that track list and see how well received songs like ‘Go’, ‘Animal,’ ‘Blood,’ ‘Immortality’ are when they’re played live and you’ll see that the songs on Vs. are many a fan’s favourite. I just wish they’d bust out ‘Leash’ more.
‘Rearviewmirror’ – every single second of it. Live, now, it’s become something else and verses are often missed but ‘Rearviewmirror’ is one of Pearl Jam’s finest songs. Ridiculously catchy for a song supposedly about suicide it’s driven along by a hugely proppulsive riff from Vedder and, again Abbruzzesse’s drumming. Plus, as an added bonus you can hear Dave throwing his sticks against the wall at the end of the song as he grew increasingly frustrated by producer Brendan O’Brien’s (this was his first time producing a Pearl Jam record) constant pressure on him. There’s also a story that he ended up punching a hole in his snare drum and throwing it off a cliff. It’s worth it, though:
There’s a lot to love about Vs. and I can’t find anything to fault it on. If you’re nitpicking you might, in the same way as you would with Pearl Jam, bemoan the lack of experimentation or single-focus on this one but the songs here are just so tight, confident and strong that you could only really do so for as long as it takes for ‘Go’ to give way to ‘Animal’.
*Technically it still holds that record as from 1998 (when it was broken by Garth Brooks) SoundScan started counting first week sales as opposed to first five days but that’s a technicality.
**Yes, Nirvana sold a tonne of records too but he famously decried Pearl Jam’s music as commercial / jock music
“There was probably a middle period where we didn’t write so much. The middle records. Maybe the third record, I think I was just writing a bunch of songs on guitar myself. But now it’s, like, a total collective. It’s all of us in there with our hammers and claws, banging it out.”
There’s so much to love about Pearl Jam’s fifth studio album, Yield. As Vedder was keen to point out at the time of the album’s release – it marked a return to a more collaborative approach to songwriting that had been missing (though not perhaps to the degree as that opening quote suggests) from the band’s previous two albums. In fact, Yield features only two songs solely written by Vedder, making it their most collaborative effort since Vs and one that would only later be matched by Pearl Jam.
So what changed? “I remember there being a stressful conversation, bordering on an argument…. we had to tun a corner on people relating to whatever they wrote as being a song, and not just a riff. It had to have space. It had to have to allow another part, which might potentially be an important part.” It took a while, from Vedder’s point of view, but by the time of Yield, drummer Jack Irons noticed a a movement toward having everybody participate more.” Ed’s call for more complete ideas to be bought to the table – I’m guessing that penning a fifth album in six years was starting to feel daunting- meant that for the first time on a Pearl Jam album (with the exception of No Code‘s ‘Mankind’) the “all lyrics by Eddie Vedder” label was missing: Gossard and Amend both contributed two songs apiece with music and lyrics, including one of my favourite Pearl Jam songs, ‘Low Light’ – a Jeff Ament composition:
All this means that the album has a real blend of styles yet remains one of their most cohesive and accessible albums. Partly, if not totally looking at the couple that followed sound-wise, to the decision to ultimately get Brendan O’Brien involved again. Well… turns out it wasn’t their decision and that’s something else I love about this album.
When they wound down touring behind No Code and began writing the material for their next album (they’d still not mastered taking a break) the guys knew they wanted the album to be more accessible but wanted to produce it themselves. Turned out O’Brien wasn’t impressed – “I remember getting on a conference call… they said they were going to make the next record a little more listener friendly. But then they said ‘We want to try it on our own and maybe bring you in at the end to help us finish it am mix it’. And I said ‘What?! Listen! I helped you on this last record. I went through all that with you guys to get to this. And now you’re telling me you want to make a more commercial-sounding record without my help? You’re out of your mind!”
So enraged was O’Brien that he demanded they tell him in person why they thought it was a good idea to go it alone, got on a plane to Seattle the next day. They sat round a kitchen table, talked it out and then started working. He wouldn’t go home for a few weeks. Perhaps like that it sounds a bit arrogant but there’s no denying the band had done their best work with O’Brien and he deserved a shot, not only that but the band were also glad of his involvement: “I’m very glad Brendan flew up. I’m glad we didn’t produce Yield ourselves… to have someone you respect that has equal or better ears than you. I don’t know if we would have had that perspective at the time,” Mike McCready would later recall.
For his involvement – McCready’s songs on Yield included one of Pearl Jam’s finest moments, a tune that the album almost centres around:
Coming out of a dark time in his life and, feeling that it was behind him, was penning tunes that “were kind of celebratory. ‘Given to Fly’ musically was kind of that statement. That’s why there’s all the peaks and valleys in it.” It, and Vedder’s ‘Wishlist’ is one of the band’s most beloved songs. It’s also one that I would sing as a lullaby to my son when he was just a baby – the fact that he’s at school now as I write this makes me treasure this song all the more and only highlights how personal my connection to this batch of songs is. It’s a funny old thing, music, and how much it can tie itself to your memories.
Back to the ‘so many things to love’ – for some reason the birth of this song itself makes me smile: McCready had some studio time booked with a mutual friend and invited Vedder to join (“It looked like a boring ‘Hard Copy’ that night, so I dediced to go in the studio”) and ‘Wishlisht’ “popped out” – originally twice as long with a lot more ‘wishes’ but it’s a real example of the organic way in which so much of Yield seems to have come about.
In a way, Yield is an album of ends and beginnings. This was the band’s last album of the 90’s and feels like it contains some of the last vestiges of their earlier ‘rough / raw’ edges like the tough ‘Brain of J’ and ‘Pilate’ and the blistering ‘Do The Evolution’ that marked the band’s return to offering a music video for the first time since a clip had been made for ‘Oceans’ – Jeff Ament had said at the time “Ten years from now, I don’t want people to remember our songs as videos.” That being said, the band themselves didn’t appear in the video:
‘Do The Evolution’ came about in the same way as ‘Wishlist’ – though with guitarist Stone Gossard finding Vedder in the studio with no weekend plans and wanting something on the album that was a little more rock other than ‘Brain of J’ – itself a holdover from 1995.
It was also the band’s last album with Brendan O’Brien for a while – he wouldn’t get the call to sit behind the big desk for another ten years – and the last with drummer Jack Irons. Having quietly battled a bipolar condition since his midtwenties, the drummer had since said good bye to his medications and found that touring wasn’t going to work with his approach to getting healthy naturally after suffering through a ‘major manic episode’ during the Australian tour to promote Yield: “I stuck to my guns, but, unfortunately, that meant not being in Pearl Jam anymore. It wasn’t that simple. I was really not well.”
So, some seven / eight years after drumming on the demo tape that was sent to Vedder and a little under a year since Soundgarden split, Matt Cameron got asked “what are you doing this summer?”, learnt 80 songs in under two weeks and took up residence on Pearl Jam’s drum seat.
I think Jack Irons is an often underrated drummer for Pearl Jam. Perhaps overlooked as a place-holder between their BIG TWO: Dave Abbruzzese and Matt Cameron. Not only was he an amazing referral service in slipping Vedder the original demo tape but he had a real propulsive drum sound as well as a real interest in experimenting and pushing the envelope – what he would call his ‘weird suff’. But check out the drums throughout No Code and Yield and there’s a very distinct difference in styles that drives those tunes on in a different direction:
The somewhat reluctant return to the music video format that ‘Do The Evolution’ marked and the determined embrace of a more accessible sound seemed to look like some of the angst that the band had carried with them since their initial era was beginning to thaw and so, Yield also feels like the ushering in of the new ‘mature’ Pearl Jam that we know today. Hell, tired of the slog that was the No Code tour the promotion of Yield would mark the band’s return to full scale touring and use of Ticketmaster. It was as though the band had started to feel more like reaching out after spending so long saying ‘no’.
It worked: ‘Given To Fly’ was a prominent feature on the radio (it topped what those crazy Americans call the ‘Mainstream Rock Charts’ for six weeks) with second single ‘Wishlist’ faring strong too. Yield tore up the charts when it was released and while it didn’t hit the top spot it beat No Code in first-week sales and the subsequent tour was such a success that the band capture it on their first – and still finest – live album Live On Two Legs.
There’s nothing to find fault in on Yield – although I don’t have as much fondness for ‘Red Dot’ and ‘Push Me / Pull Me’ as I do the rest of the album. I also love the fact that, having seemed to push the bulk of their Ten audience away for so long, that by the time the band finally released the commercial sounding album that audience had been waiting for, it had stopped listening. This was one for those that had stayed in touch. Here they sound free – as though for the first time they’ve shaken off the cloud of trying not to make an album that sounds like Ten2.
Why is this number four and not number one? We’re now at the point where there’s really nothing between these albums and, on any given day, I could just as easily proclaim Yield Pearl Jam’s finest album – especially if I’d just listened to it. But, when I drew up the list for this series, it sits here and that feels pretty ok still.
“It all just fell together. No one really compromised toward each other at all. It was kind of a phenomenon, in a way. We’d all played music for six, seven, eight years and been in different bands, and we were feeling something that we’d never really felt before, with all the honesty and the way it was all coming out.”
Here we go then – the one where it all started. It would be somewhat redundant to try and offer one of my semi-reviews of such a well known and covered album so this one’s more about my relationship with Ten.
First, though; a quick, potted history on how Pearl Jam and Ten came to be…. On March 16th 1989 Andrew Wood was found in a comatose state by his girlfriend after od’ing on heroin. A prominent figure on the nascent Seattle music scene, Wood was the lead singer of Mother Love Bone a band which he’d formed with a drummer called Regan Hagar and two other blokes called Jeff Amend and Stone Gossard – both already established figures on the ‘scene’ thanks to their former band Green River, a band that could quite credibly claim to be the first ‘grunge’ band. Mother Love Bone had earlier signed to PolyGram and were awaiting the release of their album Apple. Three days after Wood’s overdose he was removed from life support and was shortly pronounced dead.
Wood’s death was a blow to the scene. In a way it was the first turning point and the wake up call to the reality of drug abuse that it hadn’t yet experienced -but that’s a different post. Gossard and Ament were devastated. Stone ducked out of sight and began writing harder edged music and began jamming with local guitarist Mike McCready who, in turn, realised they were on to something and encouraged Stone to reconnect with Jeff Ament. The three put together an eight song instrumental demo tape – with McCready’s former bandmate Chris Friel drumming on a couple and Matt Cameron, in a strange twist of fate, on the rest – to send out to find a permanent drummer and singer.
In the late summer of 1990, Ament and Gossard travelled to LA and gave a copy of their demo to Jack Irons hoping the former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer would join their band. Irons couldn’t – he’d just signed up to a tour with another band in the name of guaranteed income for his just-about-to-start family but agreed to pass it on to any singers he knew. Turns out he knew a guy called Eddie Vedder who could hold a note…
Ten and Nevermind (released a month after Pearl Jam’s debut) became cultural phenomenons and ushered in a wave of commercial success and radio airplay that had been hitherto unknown to alternative rock and represented the breaking of the damn for the ‘grunge’ scene. It’s sold more than 13 million copies and remains the band’s calling card – their most commercially successful album and, in many case, the only album by the band that some people own.
And… I can’t blame those people for whom Ten represents the sole Pearl Jam marker in their collection. I mean – take a look at that mid-section: ‘Even Flow’, ‘Alive’, ‘Why Go’, Black’, ‘Jeremy’, ‘Oceans’ in one six-song burst. As debuts go, Ten is up there with the finest.
It’s one of hell of an addictive entry drug. I vividly remember my first taste in what was either late ’98 or early ’99. I’d tried to buy Yield not long after it came out based on a shite load of good reviews I’d read but the shop didn’t have the actual CD in – this was one of those places that displayed the cases which you’d take to the till and pay for before they pulled the disc from a little cardboard sleeve behind the counter in an effort to reduce theft – and bought OK Computer instead and had that avenue of sound opened up instead. But, sometime later, during my first year at Uni I dropped into a now long gone local independent called Ricard’s Records and picked up Ten and Live on Two Legs (again based on reviews). Both would serve as great entry drugs but it was Ten I first slipped into my car’s CD player that day and sat there hooked as the brief interlude of ‘Master/Slave’ gave way to the force of ‘Once’. That power, the dynamics and then Vedder’s voice! By the time I got to Pearl Jam I’d already had the misfortune to hear all the imitators before hearing the dude that stated that way of singing. And what was he singing? ‘I admit it’? ‘I am livid’? The inlay offered no real help.
I listened to it three times before letting it move on to the next tune and already knew I had a new favourite song. I’d later discover that ‘Once’ formed part of the Momma-Son trilogy with ‘Footsteps’ and ‘Alive’ – the three songs that Vedder put lyrics and vocals to from Jeff and Stone’s demo and that it, the middle of the trilogy, was about a man’s descent into madness and becoming a serial killer. All I knew then was that it fucking rocked my speakers out and I had it cranked up enough to pick up the “You think I got my eyes closed but I’m lookin’ at you the whole fuckin’ time…” mumble in the break down. Then there’s ‘Even Flow’… I mean yeah sure now I’ve heard it more times than I care to but hearing that for the first time.. and ‘Jeremy’, I mean, shit; this is the good stuff:
Not to mention ‘Black’ – the ballad that every ballad they’d later put out would be benchmarked against. I remember hearing that and just… you know it all connects. Yes there’s a degree of angst/cliche to all that early Pearl Jam and Seattle stuff that doesn’t necessarily age well but then, just seven years or so removed from its release, it still sounded fresh and genuine. It’s one of those things that warmed Kurt Cobain to them, eventually; Vedder really fucking means it. He’s not going through the motions.
But beyond those clutch of songs that everyone knows and still receive regular radio play closing on three decades on – the deep cuts on Ten are the best – ‘Oceans’, ‘Garden’ and ‘Release’ are what sealed the deal for me. The whole father-son thing was a big thing for Vedder in those early Pearl Jam records and it was all over this one: “Oh dear Dad, can you see me now? I am myself, like you somehow. I’ll wait up in the dark, for you to speak to me. I’ll open up.. Release Meeee… Release meeeeeee” I mean yeah you could eat the angst with a spoon but – again – the force in that performance.
I fell headlong into consuming as much of this new-to-me band as I could and it all starts with Ten. So…. why is it not at number one for me or higher up this list? Essentially: I don’t think Ten is representative of the band. The diversity and experimentation that would be the highlights of their studio albums hadn’t yet really began and while they’d played a fair few shows by the point they recorded the dynamic and tightness of the band wasn’t 100% there.
Not only that but I think the production and mix of Ten robs the songs of a lot of their punch. It’s all sort of lost in a kind of wash. In my digital ‘shelves’ I’ve got a boot labelled “First Week Rehearsal Demos” and, accuracy of the label aside, the versions of the same songs on that are a lot rawer and more powerful. Even Eddie’s vocals sound a little odd on the finished Ten compared to both demos and early live shows… even compared to his tracks on Temple of the Dog‘s ‘Hunger Strike’.
The band themselves obviously weren’t that keen on the final sound – they wouldn’t work with Rick Parashar on their next album and their next, long term producer Brendan O’Brien would be pestered by Jeff Ament to remix Ten for years before finally doing so in 2009, as Jeff stated: “somewhere in the late nineties, I found a rough mix tape of Ten. I played it on cassette and that’s when I started saying, ‘we have to remix Ten.’ It would usually happen after we’d been in a club or something, and we’d hear a song from it. It was like “Ugh! This is killing me!” At one point, I told Brendan I’d pay him to just do a version for me so if I had to listen to a song to relearn it or whatever, I’d hear the proper version.”
Essentially, very soon after recording, the songs from Ten took on a new harder, faster sound than what was captured and it very soon ceased to be a reflection of the band Pearl Jam were on their way to becoming. So, as much as I love Ten as the entry point into a long-lasting love of the band and the songs on it are faultless – it’s the live versions of those songs and O’Brien’s remix that I reach for more than my battered cd of the original studio album.
Ok – I’m halfway through my run down of Pearl Jam’s ten studio albums so this feels like a suitable place to take a knee and have a look at those albums that bear the band’s name but wouldn’t feature in the list: the live and compilation volumes.
For those who have been playing along at home, those studio albums covered thus far:
Now in terms of ‘Best Of’s and ‘Greatest Hits’ type releases this is going to be a real quick and succinct round up: there’s only one. Rearviewmirror (Greatest Hits 1991–2003) is a two-disc, contractual requirement, set that splits the band’s output into ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ volumes. I’m not too sure what the criteria for each of these is though as I would’ve pegged ‘Given To Fly’ and ‘Breath’ as being every bit as ‘up’ as ‘Corduroy’ but hey ho. As an introduction to Pearl Jam and for a good go-to in the car it’s pretty ideal and, in amongst the more well known songs are a few surprised inclusions while the presence of ‘Man of the Hour’ and ‘Yellow Ledbetter’ make for a solid compilation. It’s perhaps telling though that the vast bulk of this compilation (all but 5 of the 33 ) – . What’s more of note is that in the 15 years since the period this compilation covers there’s been just 3 studio albums vs the 7 released in the 12 years it covers. Bloody slackers.
Still, while we, as Pearl Jam fans, are in a relatively barren period for new studio material the band has become one the best live acts still regularly hitting the road and manages near-Springsteen length sets of ever-changing set lists. In the nearly three decades that separate their current tour and their first show at Seattle’s Off Ramp on October 22, 1990 their show has evolved from tight, intense performances to marathon like sets that run the gamut of tempos and mood with surprises and deep cuts thrown in among those ‘classic’ songs that were once the only songs they had in their repertoire.
So – does one of the most incredible live acts still in the game have a the appropriate incredible live album? Well, no, not really. Since their decision* to put out ‘Official Bootlegs’ of every show since 2000** there are approximately 18,000 live Pearl Jam albums out there….. not quite but almost. The bootlegs are perhaps the only way to get a real, highs, lows, warts and all document of a Pearl Jam show but unless you want to get lost in among them all there’s no real way to identify what will make one better than the other. For my money you can take you pick from any of the band’s 2006 tour and you’ll be hitting gold – peak performance and sets mixed with then-new material, classics and deep cuts.
However, in terms of the general, non-self released front there’s still a good choice out there. Live on Two Legs was the band’s first such album and captured them on their 1998 tour in support of Yield – it’s probably the best one out there if you’re looking for a single-disc intro to the band I’d recommend it over the Rearviewmirror greatest hits set: there’s no ‘Alive’ or ‘Jeremy’ but you’ll get ‘Red Mosquito’, ‘Untitled’ and a ripping take on Neil Young’s ‘Fuckin’ Up’.
As part of their PJ20 celebrations, the band tried to recapture the success of their first live disc with another general-release live album – Live On Ten Legs. A little less tightly focused, this one compiles performances from their 2003–2010 world tours and, while the band are still undeniably tight and in charge, there’s a little more of a grab-bag feel to this one. The same could also be said of last year’s Let’s Play Two. Released as a ‘live’ album to coincide with the DVD of the same name, this one feels like a real missed opportunity – the band’s shows at Wrigley Field in 2016 had some really strong setlists but here Danny Clinch (who helmed the DVD) seems to have selected the weaker cuts and has structured it in such a way as to lose any real sense of flow or continuity. Still – there’s a great take on ‘Release’ and any show that opens with ‘Low Light’ gets a thumbs up from me.
Of course, if you want to go the full Live/1975–85 route then Live at the Gorge 05/06 – it’s a seven-disc document of the band’s three shows at the venue in 2005 and 2006. There’s a few repeats, of course, but there’s a lot of solid gold here and plenty of deep cuts.
If you want to get a good feel for Pearl Jam live – it’s got to be Live On Two Legs. However – if you’ve got a little bit more time then you can’t go wrong with Live at Benaroya Hall. This two-disc set was recorded at the end of 2003 is a predominantly acoustic set (though Mike McCready often forgets that) which captures the band in a beautifully intimate setting and is packed with great takes on the well known, the lesser known and a few then-unreleased takes.
Odds and Sods
Pearl Jam’s b-sides were the stuff of legend. I remember, when I first got into the band, discussing songs like ‘Footsteps’ and ‘Hard to Imagine’ like they were lost gems. The band’s b-sides and rarities compilation Lost Dogs dropped in 2003 contains is a pretty decent collection of these. There’s the older classics already mentioned along with ‘Wash’ and ‘Alone’ along with newer cuts saved from the studio floor like ‘Down’ and ‘Otherside’. Those newer cuts – ‘Fatal’ is highlighted as producer Tchad Blake’s favourite from the Binaural sessions – serve more like the missing pieces that could have turned luke-warm albums into scorchers while some – ‘Sweet Lew’ and ‘Gremmie Out of Control’ – feel like padding and are really only for completists. As much as I give this one a regular spin, there’s a single disc’s worth of pure gold here amongst some ‘meh’.
But I’m omitting one thing. For the best of all of these – live cuts, studio solidity and rare deep stuff, one compilation is worth investment: Pearl Jam Twenty. Essentially a soundtrack to the Cameron Crowe film of the same name, Pearl Jam Twenty is a great listen. Predominantly a collection of live tunes, it combines more recent recordings with a take on ‘Alive’ from a show in 1990 when the band were still called Mookie Blaylock, a scorching ‘Blood’ from ’95 and early demos for tunes like ‘Nothing as it Seems’ and ‘Given to Fly’ to give a really strong, full-picture document of the band as it rounded off it’s second decade in business and remains on heavy rotation.
*An attempt to provide fans with a lower-priced, higher-quality recording of a show compared to the many bootlegs that were doing the rounds may not sound like the most business-savvy idea but they’ve shifted about 4 million of the things since 2000 – which is about 4 million copies shifted than Riot Act,
**Notable exceptions to the rule include the Roskilde Festival in which nine fans lost their lives.
“It’s the same everyday and the wave won’t break
Tell you to pray, while the devil’s on their shoulder” World Wide Suicide
During the tour for Riot Act Pearl Jam began to take a lot of flack and boos for daring to play ‘Bu$hleaguer’. At Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, the reaction was particularly adverse but the band persevered and were emboldened by the reaction. As Jeff Ament said “I actually walked off stage and felt great. That was a brand-new experience. Killer. We got booed standing up for something we wholeheartedly believed in.” So much so, in fact, that Pearl Jam joined Bruce Springsteen, REM and a host of other bands on the Vote for Change Tour in 2004 in support of John Kerry’s Presidential run and, for a brief moment, it looked like the tide may turn against Bush.
However, come November 3, 2004, Vedder “didn’t get out of bed. However, while I couldn’t get myself out of bed, I heard that Springsteen on that day was making a call to someone he makes records with, saying ‘I have to make a record.'” When Vedder and Pearl Jam did get to the studio a few weeks later the tunes came out on fire: ‘Life Wasted’, ‘Comatose’, ‘Severed Hand’ and what would become ‘World Wide Suicide’ all came from the bands first sessions for their eighth studio album.
And yet… while there were a good dozen songs being worked up, it began to be clear to the band that, by early 2005, the album wasn’t on track to be ready by the end of the year. “I think that came from the guys affording me the extra time to write, and my needing more time to write,” Vedder would later recall. There was also the fact that Vedder had a child during the process. So, for the first time in their history, Pearl Jam broke the album-tour-album-tour cycle and headed out on the road for a series of shows with no new music to promote. Realising that simply playing shows without the onus of promoting an album could prove a lot of fun, the shows from this tour sound like a band at its peak and they’d continue this practice in years to come. “We were separating the touring aspect of the band from the recording process. We could go out, be Pearl Jam, and tour.”
New songs would be debuted – ‘Gone’ was first played in Atlantic City the day after it had been written -and honed as well as written – Mike McCready demoed one of his finest songs, ‘Inside Job,’ on Vedder’s tape machine in South America – during the 2005 tour and the shows from this tour are well worth checking out.
When recording sessions got back under way and the new material began taking shape from the 25 songs written, it became clear that this was a very targeted album with Vedder’s lyrics aimed squarely at voicing his disgust at the Bush administration “through telling stories… an observation of modern reality rather than editorializing, which we’ve seen plenty of these days.”
It also started to look like album eight was turning into that divisive rock staple – A Concept Album. It was only sequencing that prevented it: “We tried one [sequence], and it just absolutely didn’t work. That was the one that told a story…. You could have tied it all in with a bit of narration… It was interesting to think, ‘Severed Hand’ – is that the same kid who ends up being the army reservist?”
When Pearl Jam released their eighth album in May 2006 it didn’t have a title – “In the end, we thought there was enough there with the title of the songs, so to put another title on the album would have seemed pretentious. So, really, it’s actually Nothing by Pearl Jam.” The album that fans would refer to as Avocado* was released on J Records – still a major, Sony-owned label (probably why it’s proven impossible to find videos to embed in this one, those litigious bastards) – and was their second produced by Adam Kasper. It’s their most aggressive, straight-ahead record since Vs, represented something of a comeback in terms of both quality and commercial appeal, launched a tour that I would argue captured the band at their absolute peak and – much like Vote for Change Tour alumni Springsteen’s ‘Bush album’ Magic – is a real late-career gem.
‘Life Wasted’, ‘World Wide Suicide’, ‘Comatose’ and ‘Severed Hand’ make for as hard a hitting opening series of tracks as the band have ever put to tape and bristle with a raw edge and determination that had been missing from the band for a couple of albums at this point. As Gossard said: “It doesn’t sound slick or that we polished it for too long. That’s the main thing, really, politics aside. The song just has some energy in it.”
Elsewhere on Pearl Jam, ‘Parachutes’ has a No Code vibe to it and it, along with ‘Come Back’ – the album’s sole ballad -and ‘Gone’ deal with more general, universal themes. Personally I love a huge amount of this album and think it’s the last consistently solid album the band have made to date – there’s not a song here that I’ll skip when playing and I still crank it up loud.
Granted; the diversity that made some of their earlier albums so compelling is missing, but the force and energy that enthuse this baker’s dozen of songs is undeniable. There’s a real ‘classic’ feel to this album and the tour that followed showed just how seamlessly these songs blend with the strongest elements of their back catalogue. Of the many Pearl Jam bootlegs in my collection, a good six or seven are from the 2006 tour and represent some of their finest shows – especially the five shows in Italy that would be captured on the Immagine in Cornice DVD and the Turin concert that featured the new album played through in its entirety.
I remember when Pearl Jam first dropped, having the distinct impression that it would be a ‘grower’. That’s definitely true. In the ten years plus that have passed since its release this album has certainly grown on me with every listen and new details appear with each investigation. I’m not sure why I don’t rank this one higher in the list – perhaps it is the lack of diversity in the sound. Then again: I’ve recently been spinning the 2017 remaster which was remixed by Brendan O’Brien which adds a significant amount of extra heft to the sound… but then I’m basing this on original versions otherwise I’d need to go back to the drawing board.
*Mike McCready: “That symbolizes just kind of … Ed’s at the end of the process and said, ‘for all I care right now, we’ve done such a good job on this record, and we’re kind of tired from it. Let’s throw an avocado on the cover.’ I think that’s what happened, and our art director goes, ‘hey, that’s not a bad idea.’ I think we were watching the Super Bowl, and we had some guacamole or something.”
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.