The Pearl Jam of 2020 remains, happily, tied to that of 1990, but not for a lack of creativity.
Pearl Jam celebrates its 30 years together (the pearl anniversary, somewhat interestingly) by doing a Pearl Jam thing, putting out a big rock album that mixes a solid dose of anger with a little hope and sense of community. That sort of move reaches deep into Pearl Jam history; the band came out of a very particular grunge scene, but expanded from thrashy punk by earnestly bringing its classic rock influences to the fore. But if Pearl Jam sounds like Pearl Jam, that doesn’t mean the group hasn’t changed. Gigaton shows a band that’s matured without getting old, now curious in its experimentation without deviating from its core.
The new record features clean studio production that includes an array of sounds: some New Wave, some post-punk, hard rockers, serious ballads… in general, the works. In that diversity, the band sacrifices some cohesion, but the disc benefits from it, running an hour long without ever dragging, even as Pearl Jam extends the lengths of many of these songs over five or six minutes. It’s the sound of a band confident and, if a little unfocused, certainly not uninspired.
The most obvious touchstone from their own past would be No Code, and in fact cuts like “Seven O’Clock” wouldn’t sound out of place on that 1996 record. It’s a new era, though, and on this cut Pearl Jam calmly rages – if such a thing can be done – against the state of the world and our president, choosing to imagine him drifting into irrelevance rather than using more volatile aggression. Eddie Vedder doesn’t hold back, but now he rocks his age.
Other songs, like the opening pair of “Who Ever Said” and “Superblood Wolfmoon” stick to the more assertive rocking. If you stripped out the rockers from the album, you’d end up with a pretty coherent EP, which holds the disc together as Pearl Jam tries out various sounds. Single “Dance of the Clairvoyants” makes for an obvious change in sound, more attuned to a dance club for an updated Talking Heads vibe. Vedder’s anger comes through, and he approaches despair as he sings, “Expecting perfection leaves a lot to endure/ When the past is the present and the future’s no more.” He’s not always so lucid, and his impressionism still undermines his points (but not his energy) at times. The mix of clear expression and grungy poetics persists.
Without being particularly heavy-handed, the album addresses our times, from the climate-change point of the title and cover imagery to references to current US politics. The album closes with the tense track “River Cross,” where Vedder acknowledges initially that the awfulness of the world never seems to change. The reasons to yell in 1990 weren’t that different than the reasons to yell now. “These days will end as do the light’s rays/ Another read of the same page,” he sings. He knows enough not stop there, though. The album ends with Vedder repeating, “Share the light/ Won’t hold us down,” a perennial resistance still alive.
The Pearl Jam of 2020 remains, happily, tied to that of 1990, but not for a lack of creativity. The group’s core attitude persists, allowing the musicians to stay rooted while searching for new sounds for their maturing perspective. On Gigaton, they mix some comfort food with some surprise dishes. An artistic statement that combines tradition with originality suits the modern Pearl Jam well.