The vitalogy of Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam is back. Big time.

Not that the Seattle-based five-piece ever disappeared, really. They’ve been around – you just had to look a little harder than normal to find them. To notice that the band has been rewriting the book of rock history, in their own do-it-yourself style. To notice that while the rest of the rock world has burnt out and faded with the longevity of a Gap ad, Pearl Jam has kept doing what they do best. Rocking out. Releasing records and official bootlegs. Selling out arenas in city after city. Playing two-hour-plus live shows, each one different, unique and powerful. Basically, just keeping it real.

In fact, there isn’t another rock band in the world today that can lay claim to the following: the ability to sell out multiple nights in an arena in a major-market city (which is the equivalent of selling 60,000 tickets to 60,000 unique fans in a single town), yet somehow be deemed “unpopular” or “irrelevant” by the mainstream press.

Well, that’s all about to change.

Pearl Jam’s new self-titled record (to be released on J Records May 2) is their eighth. It’s the band’s finest since 1998’s Yield. And it’s the first rock record to come out in a long time that sounds like it actually matters.

Blasting out full throttle with “Life Wasted,” a Who-ish rocker where lead singer Ed Vedder sings and screams as if his life depended on it, the band doesn’t take prisoners and refuses to look back. There are no apologies. No trick punches. No cliches. It’s just driving guitars, the best rhythm section in rock today, thought-provoking lyrics, layered melody and Vedder’s animal-like howl.

“Why swim the channel just to get this far? Halfway there, why would you turn around?” screams Vedder, part plea, part condemnation.

Beneath his soaring voice, one that almost sounds hoarse as if it has screamed these words too many times before, bassist Jeff Ament is deep in the low end, kicking through the speakers with thick notes that push and pull. Drummer Matt Cameron alternates a standard Motown 4/4 beat with hi-hat catches and quick, powerful fills that crash like waves. And while rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard chomps and devours power chords in his trademark furtive staccato style, lead guitarist Mike McCready unleashes a nasty, chaotic solo that is the musical definition of shock and awe.

And this is just the LP’s first track. It only gets better.

“Worldwide Suicide,” the album’s first single, which instantly shot to number one on the Billboard Modern Rock chart, finds the band immediately changing gears. Sounding like Vitalogy-era Pearl Jam mixed with “Green Disease” from 2003’s overlooked Riot Act, the song is Pearl Jam at its best.

Beginning backwards with a snare crack from Cameron, guitar feedback floats on top of a catchy, almost danceable snare/kick-drum pattern. Then the guitars crash in. As thick, overdriven rhythm chords dart in and out, an experimental e-bow screeches, creating an intriguing counter melody. Then a third guitar appears, catching the backbeat on a high note and, just as quickly, sliding out. And then the verse begins.

“Saw his face in a corner picture – I recognized the name. Could not stop staring at the face I’d never see again.”

This time, Vedder swings the pendulum, taking a point of view that is often ignored when discussing the perils of war – the thoughts and feelings of “those left behind.”

Once the bridge rolls around, Vedder’s voice is cracking, breaking. “What does it mean, when the war has taken over?” he shouts.

It’s one of the simplest, yet most profound statements that anyone has voiced in regards to the United States’ invasion of Iraq. In one line, Vedder says everything that the talking heads on television haven’t.

Up next, “Comatose.” Clocking in at the tightest two minutes and 20 seconds that you’ll ever hear on a rock record, Pearl Jam is simply on fire. Written when the band was headlining the “Vote for Change” tour during the 2004 presidential election, Vedder’s lyrics rip open the question of democracy in an un-democratic time. The guitars rage and soar. And the Cameron-Ament combination sounds like a freight train doused in gasoline.

“Consider me an object, put me in vacuum – Feel it rising, yeah, next stop: falling.”

It’s The Clash’s “Know Your Rights” in double time, sung by The Buzzcocks. By the time that McCready rips through a solo that borders on the verge of metal, you’ll either want to re-register to vote or camp out in front of the White House.

However, as soon as the track slams to a halt, Pearl Jam’s at it again. More change.

“Severed Hand” opens with an airy, spinning, backwards sound (think the intro to Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates.”) Twenty-five seconds later, an intricate tom pattern and shimmering guitar chords emerge similar to “Light Years” off of 2000’s underappreciated Binaural. Then, a third bridge jumps out – vicious and anthemic, it sounds like 1991 all over again. And the first verse hasn’t even started yet.

“Big man stands behind an open door, says ‘leave your baby on the cement floor,'” Vedder sings, in a new-found, semi-demented voice.

This time, he’s a man who’s seen it all and has had enough. Written back in 2000 as Vedder was dealing with personal issues and the band was dealing with the aftermath of the Roskilde tragedy, “Severed Hand” is Pearl Jam recreating and reinventing itself.

“Parachutes” is perhaps the smartest track on the album. Vedder is romantic and charming, and the band sounds new and clean, while giving a nod to Lennon and McCartney at the same time. “Unemployable” is as catchy as it is socially timely. “Big Wave” is punk/surf rock with Motown backing vocals. “Army Reserve” echoes The Cure and The Smiths in their prime. And the LP’s final two tracks, “Come Back” and “Inside Job,” see the band dealing with tragedy and the grief that follows it nakedly, creating songs that mirror the ebb and flow of life.

Quite simply, Pearl Jam sounds reborn – vital and essential for these turbulent times. And Vedder, while older and wiser, has undoubtedly regained his fire. A father now, it’s as if he’s taken a good, hard look at the world and decided that it is worth saving. And on this album, he sounds like he’d be the first person in line to sign up and take on the cause.


Pearl Jam will play the Gorge Amphitheater in George, Wash., on July 22 and 23. Tickets go on sale this Saturday at 9 a.m. Check for details.