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Anton Corbijn

What's the use of great lyrics if you can't listen to the music?

Jam on It

Pearl Jam's new record is a typically frustrating listen

By Gina Arnold

THE RECENT PUBLICATION of Kurt Cobain's journals reminded me of an incident that occurred at a Nirvana show I attended in Denmark in the summer of 1992. Pearl Jam was the opener, and singer Eddie Vedder was sitting in a corner backstage, all distraught because someone had stolen his diary. He was so upset he could barely perform. Kurt, who complains in his own newly published work that people who'd stolen some pages of one of his journals in a hospital "could never imagine how bad they raped me," could relate.

One problem with journals is that a lot of what one says is bullshit that one is sorry for later. For example, Kurt is quoted in the journals as saying that Pearl Jam sucked--but by the time he died, I know that, whatever he thought of their music, Kurt respected the band, because it walked a path he couldn't find it in himself to follow. Nirvana just talked about how "anti-corporate" it was. Pearl Jam really lived it. No videos, no interviews, a much-publicized fight against TicketMaster for price fixing. Commercially, Pearl Jam has paid the price for its integrity, but it has reaped some benefits as well. For one thing, the members are all still alive, to quote the song.

That's the good news about Pearl Jam. The bad news is that, musically, Pearl Jam will never achieve what Nirvana did. Listening to Pearl Jam is like meeting someone with a Ph.D. in semiotics from Harvard whose record collection is full of albums by Led Zeppelin, Metallica and System of a Down.

It's odd how loyal Pearl Jam remains to sounds that only convey a tiny portion of its thoughtfulness and musical ability. The band is capable of writing great songs like "Jeremy," "Daughter" and "Better Man." Vedder is also capable of wonderful interpretations, like Victoria Williams' "Crazy Mary" or the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." But Pearl Jam seldom, if ever, uses that capability. Instead, Vedder sings and sometimes talks on one note, and the band plays music that is vaguely tuneless, full of guitar noodles and very, very old-fashioned. The members are total underachievers, allergic to melody, cohesiveness and, frankly, modernity.

Pearl Jam's new CD, Riot Act, is a typically frustrating listen. It starts out with the song "Can't Keep," which contains a groovy opening riff that never quite develops into a full-blown anthem. Many other songs do the same thing; only the single "I Am Mine" allows a sing-along chorus. Elsewhere, the music is guitar-solo heavy, and Vedder's fragmentary lyrics are inward and strange.

To its eternal credit, Pearl Jam still believes in rock & roll as a vehicle for political commentary. On the song "Bushleaguer," for example, Vedder sings, "Born on third [and] thinks he got a triple," about our fearless leader, and adds, "The haves have not a clue, the immenseness of suffering." You'd expect those words from Chumbawamba, Fugazi or Le Tigre. But from a blue collar-oriented, working-class band of guitar-rock worshipers, it's more than just unprecedented; it's almost poignant.

The album's thick CD booklet shows what it is Pearl Jam wants to emphasize about itself: its lyrics and perhaps a sort of gray mystique that harks back to the days before MTV, when everything extra about rock music took place in your imagination. The band doesn't care whether you buy its music or not, and while that is in one sense the very best place to be making music from, it is also very alienating. As a fan, I don't necessarily need to know a band's secret, innermost thoughts to love it, but it helps.

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From the November 21-27, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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