Pearl Jam

Monkeywrench, 2020

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


After 2013’s Lightning Bolt, there were fears that Pearl Jam had said all they needed to say. Perhaps sensing this, the opening song on Gigaton repeats the refrain “Who ever said it’s all been said gave up on satisfaction.”

Indeed, there is little late career satisfaction to be found on the band’s eleventh album. The band has spent the last seven years touring, sure, but also pursuing solo projects and interests, traveling the world, seeing the climate change impacts, absorbing all of the cultural and political changes in that time. If ever a current band was primed to write something about this, Pearl Jam is it.

Gigaton surges and sighs through its hour-long run time, name-checking Trump and global warming in a couple of spots, but not so much angry as weary. That distinction is important, and one that other critics will miss; Vedder is telling us that we can do better, we can band together, we can be satisfied, and that he’s already told us all of this before. But he will keep doing so. That’s what makes Pearl Jam vital in an ever-changing world.

It’s the band’s most consistent album since Binaural from 2000 and sonically recalls the burnished sound of Riot Act, which this album most recalls in spirit. There are no punky one-off singles this time around, though; instead, the left-field track is “Dance Of The Clairvoyants,” a catchy synth pop piece with a swirling, multi-tracked vocal closing section. It’s the most ambitious thing the band has done since 2006’s “Inside Job,” and it elevated Pearl Jam back to the national discussion in a way we hadn’t seen since Bush was president. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

It turns out that “Dance” is somewhat of a feint, as the bulk of the album trades in the standard rock of every Pearl Jam of the 21st century, but there’s an urgency about this one. For my money, “Quick Escape” is the band’s best song of the last 14 years, a confident, loping hard-rocker written by Jeff Ament, and a great choice for single. “Who Ever Said” is crunchy and propulsive, the song you’re most likely to find yourself humming in the kitchen only after two listens.

But others will be drawn to the midtempo reflective pieces, like the Springsteen-esque centerpiece “Seven O’Clock” and “Alright,” the former of which implores the listener that “this is no time for depression or self-indulgent hesitance / This fucked-up situation calls for all hands on deck.” What situation that is remains up to the listener – climate change, leaders who only care about a small privileged segment of their countrymen – but apathy is not an option. Vedder also gets in a dig at Trump here: “Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse forged the north and west / And today we’ve got Sitting Bullshit as our sitting president.” No point being as subtle as “Bu$hleaguer” was back in the day; they’re much to worn-out for veiled metaphors.

If you’re looking for hard-charging Jam, “Superblood Wolfmoon” and especially “Never Destination” are your gigs. On the latter, Vedder snarls over a great Matt Cameron drum track and a fuzzy McCready guitar solo. Both men are more of the heroes on Gigaton than Gossard and Ament, which is a bit strange, but maybe a welcome shake-up of power, because these songs wouldn’t work without Cameron powering them. Same goes for “Take The Long Way,” which sounds fairly standard but rides a twitchy off-kilter drum pattern that keeps the song from settling.

At an hour long, it was inevitable the album would have a couple Pearl Jam-By-Numbers cuts, like “Alright,” “Retrograde,” and “Buckle Up,” but who’s griping (besides BitchSpork, a fellow review site that shrugs at everything)? “Comes Than Goes” is the slow number here, a respite from the noise and a lovely 12-string elegy for a lost loved one. People theorize whether it’s a family member, late Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell or simply a friendship that disintegrated, but it’s irrelevant; the sentiment will mean something different to all.

When it’s done, after mournful organ-led closer “River Cross,” the listener is left with the overarching theme of the album, which is togetherness. Maintain your friendships and relationships. Recognize beauty in your world and take care of the Earth. Don’t practice politics of hate and exclusion. Love some clairvoyants, because they’re out of this world. And if you do all this, as Vedder repeats at the end of the album, nobody will hold us down.

Rating: B+

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