Pearl Jam's demise from rock star status was cemented with No Code. Considered to be a commercial bomb and even by some fan standards, an artistic failure, the album sold about a third as well as Vitalogy and about an eighth as well as Vs.
But true fans of bands usually marvel at the artistic bumps in the road as much as they adore the most popular recordings. First off, No Code didn't sink Pearl Jam. Something had to turn off the millions of fans they had. And that album was Vitalogy. Yes, it did have moments of brilliance, but it also had oddities that scared many fans away. The beyond avant-garde last track of Vitalogy, where a young person contemplates suicide and the accordian from hell track, "Bugs" isn't the stuff that lures new fans in.
Still shying away from publicity, No Code is a glorious "fuck you" to any unified style. Much of it feels like it was recorded while they were dueting with Neil Young on their excellent Mirror Ball CD.
Many good things can be said about No Code. First off, it's probably the most creative and painstakingly packaged CDs to come out this decade. Honestly, how many bands put their lyrics on the backs of friggin Polaroids? Secondly, it's probably the most "rockin'" CD that Pearl Jam have released. Vedder is pissed, and it shows on tracks like "Red Mosquito" and "Lukin."
Of course, Vedder would just be a cranky, whiney soloist if it wasn't for the band. And if anyone steals the show on No Code, it is the newest drummer of the band, the now departed Jack Irons. His work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers initially seemed out of place with Pearl Jam. But it in fact loosened up their sound. Tracks like, "Hail Hail," it sounds like the snare and bass is hammering in your inner ear.
If Irons' drumming sounds fresh and vital, the guitar work of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard seem to have hit the coast mark on No Code. With so many of the tracks having a classic rock feel, it often sounds like the two were doing guitar licks in their sleep at the recording. It's hard to blame them when at the time No Code was recorded, Vedder had pretty much a stranglehold on the direction the band was taking.
The mix mash of classic rock anthems and pensive ballads sends No Code on a train wreck course. It honestly sounds like the band was throwing anything that was in their minds at the time to the tape. Screw an editor, this is inspiration, dammit. For as heartful as "Mankind" and "Smile" were, it just felt like No Code was a B-sides compilation.
Still, only a band like Pearl Jam could make No Code. It was a mess, but it was an inspired one. And it was able to accomplish all of what Pearl Jam wanted: They breached out and explored new sounds and they aliented the remaining teeny-boppers who used to drool over Eddie Vedder's tortured persona. After No Code, the band had far less pressure to record an album.
No Code seems destined to join the ranks of "Metal Machine Music" by Lou Reed, Tori Amos' Boys For Pele and Prince's Come as self-indulgent failures. But true fans of the artists see these bombs as necessary detours to get to a higher level. The seeds the band planted on Vitalogy and No Code brought forth possibly their best album, Yield. But these seeds were sewn with the help of Jack Irons. Now, with Matt Cameron, it's anybody's guess where Pearl Jam will go with their sound. True fans will no doubt tune in, all one million of them.