Pearl Jam: Gigaton review – grunge gurus revel in the end times
It is 29 years since the release of Pearl Jam’s 16m-selling debut album Ten. On one level: of course it is. Is there anything more piquantly redolent of the distant moment when grunge went from being a witty melding of US punk, old-fashioned British indie and an unabashed love of 1970s hard rock to a vast, mainstream concern than the videos for its singles Jeremy and Alive? These were expensively shot depictions of, respectively, high-school alienation – replete with hand-scrawled words such as “disturb”, “numb” and “problem” flashing across the screen – and Pearl Jam in their early live pomp, a riot of backwards caps, pained expressions and plaid.
But on another level: really? Grunge bands that took the major-label shilling were supposed to self-immolate in a blaze of hard drugs, discord and self-hatred. But three decades and 28 albums later, Pearl Jam are still here, still unequivocally huge. By the mid-2000s, Rolling Stone had started comparing them to the Grateful Dead, and the point holds: they’re purveyors of implausibly long live shows and implausibly numerous live albums, possessed of a following so large and dedicated that it’s impervious to fashion.
It’s a situation to which there are two obvious responses: the fans aren’t going anywhere, so why try? And: the fans aren’t going anywhere, so do what you want. The non-partisan observer might suggest that the former has been very much the ethos behind their least inspired albums; Gigaton, however, largely falls into the latter category. There are definitely points that sound exactly like someone who bailed after their last multi-platinum mega-seller, 1994’s Vitalogy, might expect Pearl Jam to sound in middle age: Take the Long Way is workmanlike heartlands hard rock; Comes Then Goes is standard-issue gruffly wounded acoustic balladry that borrows its verse melody from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Up Around the Bend. Its use of electronics occasionally devolves into behold-this-moment-of-great-portent swirling befitting an album that features a Dark Side of the Moon-esque cardiogram over a painting of a collapsing polar ice shelf.
Elsewhere, Gigaton sounds more vital and unexpected. In the six years since their last studio album, a lot has happened in US politics and it’s tempting to suggest that might have something to do with it. Always good at rabble-rousing and nothing if not politically committed, you get the feeling that a certain urgency about getting their message across might have given Pearl Jam’s music a renewed sense of vigour. The burst of widdly-woo guitar shredding on Superblood Wolfmoon is precisely the kind of thing that would have caused Kurt Cobain to roll his eyes, but the track comes at you with such force that it’s irresistible. The pump organ of closer River Cross recalls sometime Pearl Jam collaborator Neil Young’s use of the same instrument, but its wheezing, hymnal quality is a perfect backdrop for Eddie Vedder’s impassioned vocal: punctuated by bass guitar and thundering drums, it keeps threatening to surge into lighters-out territory, but never takes the leap, as if to underline that the song’s message of optimism is cautious at best. Quick Escape does a lot of Pearl Jammy stuff – big soaring chorus, more guitar histrionics – but sets them against an atmosphere that’s authentically spacey and strange, as again befits lyrics that have taken on an entirely unwitting kind of currency. If you’re going to release a song about the human race facing such catastrophe that escaping to another planet feels appealing, now is probably the moment to do it.
The same impulse seems to have fuelled a desire to make music that reaches beyond the diehards. Dance of the Clairvoyants pitches angular post-punk guitar against limber electro-pop. Moreover, it does it really well. Never Destination stirs a small but nevertheless noticeable dash of impassioned soul influence into its punky stew, and Buckle Up is appealingly warm, off-kilter psychedelia with another lyric about uncertain futures: “Do no harm,” it counsels, “and buckle up.”
As for the rabble-rousing message, it’s more potent and engaging than you might expect. You don’t have to be a Breitbart subscriber to feel a little deflated by the prospect of another album telling you Donald Trump is an arsehole: unless your tastes in American rock tend to Ted Nugent and Kid Rock, it’s a point you’ve heard umpteen times. It says something about Pearl Jam’s renewed dynamism that they’ve found original ways of putting it. The humans departing earth on Quick Escape wearily complain about “the lengths we had to go … to find someplace Trump hadn’t fucked up yet”. Seven O’Clock’s gag about Trump as an indigenous American leader, “Sitting Bullshit”, is pretty good: the way the lyric slips from poking fun to a haunting fantasy of him as a wounded, depleted force, “throwing punches with nothing to hit” even better. Almost 30 years into a career you would once have put money on ending within five, Gigaton suggests Pearl Jam might still be around long after Trump is a distant memory.This week Alexis listened to
International Teachers of Pop: Don’t Diss the DiscoFrom their forthcoming second album, a gleaming, joyous nugget that fully justifies the band’s name.