on 11 September 2012
Pearl Jam's newest record, RIOT ACT, has been released today. To understand RIOT ACT, it helps to understand what's happening with Pearl Jam's fellow bands of the grunge scene. This review helps explain the context of what is going on these days, because those fans who keep waiting for another TEN or VS. to roll out just simply have no clue. There will never be another TEN just like there will never be another NEVERMIND. But there will be Pearl Jam, and, hopefully, for many years will be around to show us what a real rock and roll band can do.
The year's 2002. Cobain's been dead eight years. The compilation NIRVANA has been released, showing off the `long lost' Nirvana cut "You Know You're Right." A Nirvana box set has been indefinitely postponed because of legal wranglings among bandmates Krist Novoselic and David Grohl and Cobain's widow, Courtney Love. Layne Staley died this year because of drugs. Jerry Cantrel has gone solo. Cantrel's record, Degradation Trip, show us just how badly drugs ruined Alice in Chains, ruing their chance at a fully productive career. Soundgarden broke up five years ago (has it really been that long?). The Smashing Pumpkins called it quits in 2000. Scott Wieland has been in and out of drug treatments so many times he almost defines that old cliche of `sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Bush is still going, but they were never innovators in the first place. Who's left of the old crew? Not many. Of the major players, Pearl Jam alone has persevered, and even they have long ago left grunge.
Pearl Jam has traveled a long road since they broke out with their debut TEN, emerging as a seminal Seattle band along with the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Alice in Chains. Pearl Jam, of the major bands from that scene, has always been the most classic-rock oriented of the bunch. While Nirvana was essentially an indie-rock band with some heavy undercurrents and Soundgarden was just heavy, Pearl Jam, from the very beginning, has tempered their sound with the sensibilities of the `classic rock' of the 1970s. It's no surprise Eddie Vedder's favorite record as a teen was The Who's QUADROPHENIA.
While Nirvana blew apart the country musically with their seminal NEVERMIND, it is Pearl Jam that kept grunge going. Nirvana was rooted much more in a punky, indie sound while Pearl Jam made 1970s rock informed by 1990s angst. Pearl Jam stayed within in the grunge movement, though, and helped shape the genre for its short life, being one of it's major players.
Of course, the Seattle scene, one could argue, ended when Cobain was found dead from his own hand. Grunge petered out. It's my belief that, while maybe not in their personal lives, Pearl Jam was on the same downward spiral musically as Cobain was in real life. Their first three records (TEN, VS., and VITALOGY) get progressively darker, bottoming out at "Immortality." Everything Pearl Jam have done since then is very drastically different from the grunge sound they helped pioneer.
Since VITALOGY, Pearl Jam given the world four records (1996's NO CODE, 1998's YIELD, 2000's BINAURAL, and 2002's RIOT ACT). None of these records sound like grunge but they all sound like Pearl Jam very naturally evolving. Pearl Jam was on a crash course and I believe Cobain's death got them out of their own downward spiral.
These four records sound much like a classicist rock band than anything else. NO CODE is very radical. NO CODE is very startling because just a mere two years ago these guys had released the very dark, angry, almost nihilistic VITALOGY and now they'd grown reflective and, well, rather subdued, like they've lost all their rage. They loosened up; they've grown philosophical and reflective. Refer to my review of NO CODE for more about my beliefs on how important this album is in the Pearl Jam story. While NO CODE is the first album length work we had from the band since 1994, the "Merkinball" E.P. helps foreshadow this change in their career.
Since that record, Pearl Jam has been playing whatever music they want, sounding like a 1970s leftover. As far as current musical trends, Pearl Jam hasn't been relevant since 1994 when grunge fell apart, and quite frankly the world is better for Pearl Jam pursuing their own path. The late 1990s saw us in a wasteland of teeny-bob boy bands on one side and dark, entirely too serious angst `new metal' on the other. Even Cobain made fun music, but not bands like Creed. These are serious times and the world is just so terrible, so we must make serious music.
Pearl Jam, with RIOT ACT, hasn't changed the direction they are moving in, and have been their entire career. Eddie Vedder and the boys are so far left of what's happening in the music today that, ironically, they show just how relevant they really are. Pearl Jam shows us that when a band evolves and goes where it needs too to survive and prosper that, whatever's going on around them, they will be better for it. For those awaiting another TEN, RIOT ACT will not soothe that taste. Just like people, bands change and their identity evolves. There will never be another TEN from these boys, and if there was it would be a regression. People calling for another TEN or VS. haven't been with Pearl Jam since 1995.
For those looking for one of America's great rock and roll bands making great music, totally out of step with mainstream (Thank God) and showing how impressive they actually are. RIOT ACT hits home, and it hits hard. Pearl Jam shows us that they can still write a melody, they are still growing musically, they can still maintain their political stance without becoming a parody of themselves, and most of all, Pearl Jam shows us with RIOT ACT how a great band makes great music.