Tuesday, March 6, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1113: Pearl Jam

I had an unexpected extra day with this album, but fortunately all it did was make me appreciate it more.

Disc 1113 is… Riot Act
Artist: Pearl Jam

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover? The King and Queen of the Ash Heap hold court. The King really ought to give up smoking – he’s looking awful thin.

How I Came To Know It: I saw the video for “I Am Mine” and I thought it was a good song. Since this was in the days before Youtube I then took a leap of faith the rest of the album would also be good.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 11 Pearl Jam albums and Riot Act is one of my favourites. I’ll put it in at…fourth.

Ratings: 4 stars

I’ll always remember “Riot Act” as the album that reinvigorated my interest in Pearl Jam after having forgotten them for many years. Whether it was having enough separation from their early career, just being ready to return to this style of music or some excellence intrinsic in the record itself, “Riot Act” brought me back to Pearl Jam and I’ve never left since.

This personal connection to the album could make it difficult to see it objectively, but I think enough time has passed (15 years) that I can once again appreciate the record on its own merits.

There is a lot to appreciate. “Riot Act” is a sonic soup, layering instruments and production on top of each other like the musical equivalent of plaid, sometimes appearing stark, sometimes saturated with multiple influences and sometimes being something between the two.

In short, the album is a sonic smorgasbord, with songs that are quiet and introspective, songs that are walls of sound and mid-range traditional rock songs, all grounded in Pearl Jam’s frantic style and Eddie Vedder’s powerful rock vibrato.

I overplayed this album when I first bought it and on my first listen it felt a bit overly eager and unfocused, but midway through I found my feet, inspired by the album doing the same. It is an album that you have to surrender yourself to in order to fully appreciate it. Or as Vedder sings on “Cropduster”:

“Everyone is practicing,
But this world's an accident.
I was the fool because I thought
I thought the world
Turns out the world thought me.”

Or in other words, if you think you’re the center of the universe, you’re not – and that’s OK.

The song that grabbed me most – and brought me back into the Pearl Jam fold to stay – is “I Am Mine.” This is a song that is an existential anthem, with Vedder half-singing, half-preaching as he drops a lyrical sermon on top of the heavy reverb of Stone Gossard’s atmospheric guitar. The lyrics speak to my existential soul, the lines:

“I know I was born and I know that I'll die
The in between is mine
I am mine”

Are the most self-affirming stuff since Vedder belted out “I’m still alive” on the band’s debut record over ten years earlier.

Immediately following “I Am Mine” we are gifted the other side of Vedder. On “Thumbing My Way” he is the doubting soul who seems lost and yet imbued with a supernal instinct to find just the right ride to catch to get himself right. “Thumbing My Way” still has a fair bit of resonance and production, but the band keeps the arrangement stark and simple, letting the combination of frailty and self-assurance soak in. This is a song that tells you it is OK to not feel certain, but still feel comfortable in that uncertainty.

Even tracks with less direction, like the one minute tribal chant that is “Arc” work because Vedder fully commits himself to the moment. It isn’t the greatest moment on the album, but it is delivered with enough honesty that it adds nuance to the experience as a whole.

There are moments I wanted to be better. “Love Boat Captain” had a beautiful rising song construction that should be better, but falls short on some of Vedder’s lyrics. He is a raw poet by nature, but sometimes can be too clever by half. Fortunately the tune is so powerful, that it is easy to overlook and besides, who doesn’t love a song that appeals to our better natures and calls for a better understanding of love.

At 15 songs and 54 minutes the album is a smidge too long but there is nothing so terrible that it ruins it and plenty of good stuff along the way to buoy the experience.

“Riot Act” is an album from a band that is comfortable in their own skin, willing to explore a bit in finding themselves all the while knowing that as Buckaroo Bonsai once said, “Wherever you go……there you are.”

Best tracks: Cropduster, I Am Mine, Thumbing My Way, You Are, Green Disease, All or None

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