Favorite Songs: “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” “Quick Escape,” “Take the Long Way,” “Buckle Up”
I was given very little choice when it came to being a Pearl Jam fan. I was born into the fandom. My dad has been a member of the Ten Club since its inception, and both he and my mom have had a crush on Eddie Vedder since they bought the band’s debut nearly 30 years ago. Pearl Jam thusly was one of the first musical bonds I ever formed with my father—I distinctly remember him obsessively collecting their CD singles to obtain all of their B-sides long before they became conveniently available on the LOST DOGS compilation. And I’ve been fortunate to enter the church of dad rock with him twice to see the band live (on the BACKSPACER and LIGHTNING BOLT tours, respectively). While those studio albums left me highly disappointed, the concerts were two of the best rock performances I have ever attended. Live in concert, Pearl Jam is truly a force to be reckoned with, but their three studio albums released over the past 15 years have sounded like collections of rarities and B-sides at best, strung together by a group of dads sitting in a garage trying to convince each other that they still know how to rock.
After the god-awful stand alone single “Can’t Deny Me” in 2018, I was not holding my breath for anything worthwhile to appear on what would become the band’s 11th studio album, GIGATON, but then I heard “Dance of the Clairvoyants.” I absolutely loved it. A bass-heavy groove carried by a beat so tight and dry that you would swear it was programmed instead of drummer extraordinaire Matt Cameron laying it down live. Sprinkle in some synth, as well as Eddie Vedder channeling David Byrne with a short, choppy vocal delivery, and the band had released their most innovative track in a long time.
“Dance of the Clairvoyants” ended up being so innovative and different, in fact, that their Generation X radio rock fans (including my dear father) immediately raised red flags. What the hell happened to Pearl Jam!? The band actually had to come out and assure people that there were straightforward rock tracks to be had on GIGATON. I, for one, was hoping for more curveballs like “Dance of the Clairvoyants”—one of my biggest complaints about latter-day Pearl Jam releases is the uninspired guitar work from Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, who went from being one of the most interesting guitar duos of the ‘90s to almost exclusively a power chord tag team. “Dance of the Clairvoyants” barely featured any guitars outside of some sparsely utilized, funky-sounding chords, and I couldn’t have been happier. Pearl Jam was trying something different.
Ultimately GIGATON mostly delivers on the band’s promise to bring the rock, but while there may not be anything as experimental as their controversial first single, the band definitely pushes out of the complacent confines they found themselves living in for the past few releases. Opening track “Who Ever Said” is a punchy, rolling offering that finds Vedder as worried as ever in the verses before leaving a little more breathing room in a simple and catchy chorus. The track is a welcome change of pace from the simple Verse-Chorus-Repeat structure the band had settled into, cycling in short synth and guitar hooks, and a couple bridges to break things up. “Superblood Wolfmoon” almost comes off as a direct appeasement of the fans who were unhappy with “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” built around a ridiculously simple distorted guitar riff and gravelly Vedder growls, with a short, yet fiery McCready solo. It’s nothing new, but it’s solid.
Vedder takes exactly half of the songwriting credit on GIGATON, and as always, it’s a mixed bag. When the man is on, you get songs like “Superblood Wolfmoon” or “Never Destination,” both worthy of the Pearl Jam brand. But when he’s off, you get long, dragging songs that coincidentally are always saved for the second half of their recent records. Tracks like “Comes Then Goes” or “River Cross” sound like cuts intended for a follow-up to the INTO THE WILD soundtrack with Pearl Jam as featured musicians. Subsequently, some of the stronger tracks on the record are the ones Vedder has no credits on, notably Matt Cameron’s solo contribution “Take The Long Way,” an urgent scorcher that features some dreamy vocal harmonies and a wah-wah laden solo that sounds like it was salvaged from the mixing room floor of the TEN sessions. Stone Gossard’s hypnotically sincere “Buckle Up” immediately follows, and it may be one of the prettiest songs the band has ever recorded.
The highlight of GIGATON comes on the Jeff Ament-helmed “Quick Escape.” This song is absolutely massive, led by an onslaught of Ament’s bass and screeching guitars. Vedder’s narrative lyrics lay out the travel log details of an expedition desperately searching “to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet,” eventually becoming stranded, yet safe, on Mars. Given the frontman’s disdain for the current administration, the presence of politics on GIGATON feels about on the same level as the albums released during the Bush years. While Vedder spends most of his time exploring themes of rallying the human spirit and finding hope in togetherness, as he always has, he still works in a couple jabs like referring to Trump as “Sitting Bullshit,” a play on Sitting Bull, in “Seven o’Clock.” It’s nothing new from a band that wrote “W.M.A.” and has consistently participated in Rock The Vote since 1992, but nonetheless, I’ve found more than one occasional fan review on a message board and/or comment on social media from disgruntled former fans chastising Vedder for bringing his politics into his art when he should simply stick to the music—people deciding to get mad about Vedder’s politics now means they must not have ever been paying very close attention to Pearl Jam.
GIGATON is the Pearl Jam album Pearl Jam fans have been waiting for. While maybe not as bold as albums like YIELD or BINAURAL in terms of being sonically experimental, the same spirit is embodied throughout, or as much as it can be for a band who are 30 years into their career. It is not perfect, but it’s more than obvious that the band is trying to branch out from the radio-ready rock they have been dialing into for more than a decade. While it’s a bummer that the band had to postpone their upcoming tour in light of the corona pandemic, at least they’ve given us an album worthy of repeat listens to hold us over until it’s safe for Pearl Jam to do what they do best.