So, I had a think while Pearl Jammin’ in the name of the lord:
PJ survived the grunge era as an extant band by hedging their bets, or perhaps by growing as an artistic entity. While their compatriots carved out specific niches – Nirvana with depression and anti-fame, Soundgarden with cock-rock, Alice in Chains with hard rock, Smashing Pumpkins with whiny teen angst, Pearl Jam blended a general feeling of identification with outcasts and hippy-dippyism while STILL cranking out riff-led rock songs. This allowed them to ascend in popularity along early-90s alt-scene types but avoid self-destructing. Then, when they felt like getting weird they had a good reason for spoken word poetry and Earth Mother Gaia drum circle stuff BUT so long as they still had two guitarists and a guy (lead singer Scott Stapp) who could scream and hate record companies they could still stay on the radio. Unsurprisingly, the best way to survive being part of a fad was keeping your options open. Also, not being obviously addicted to heroin.
This album was probably the main reason they remained the minor force they still are today: The fad had exploded, and the albums had been progressively selling less and less and containing more and more slow weirdness. So they got their act together and evidently decided to crank out a bunch of old-timey loud songs (albeit with thankfully and at times wonderfully updated themes) with only a little weirdness, and bam! Consider your ticket punched for the train to “THIS album is the return to form fans have been for since Yield!!”ville!
This is their late-20s album: they still had some old-school fight left in them, and just when we doubted them, they showed they still had it. “See honey,” they said to each other “marriage doesn’t mean the end of our social lives after all,” ignoring that all their friends were slowly becoming married couples as well, and that that black 24 year-old had stopped coming to their increasingly posh parties, “let’s have allegorical kids and record ‘Binaural’!” But first!
For my money, this album is painfully uneven but really great for over half the time. It starts with a dumb riff-rocker, but then tracks 2-7 are all great! There’s a pretend-apathetic song with a really cool guitar effect in one ear (“No Way”), a soaring crescendo (“Given To Fly”), a slower song with lyrics consisting of a shopping list of usually touching desires (“I wish I was a sailor with someone who waited for me / I wish I was as fortunate / as fortunate as me / I wish I was a messenger and all the news was good / I wish I was the full moon shining off your Camaro’s hood”), a couple other silly but really catchy songs, and the endless fun of the misanthropic rave-up “Do the Evolution,” which also had perhaps the greatest music video ever (and you can really hear it).
But ah, the signs of aging! What’s with the atrocious and pretentious spoken-word /dumb bassline / off-key backing vocals / overproduced “Push Me, Pull Me”? How come they include only some of the lyrics, but with random words omitted? Why end the album on a silly in-joke instead of the pretty solid “All Those Yesterdays”? The mostly-acoustic Tom Petty-like song isn’t that great either, nor is “In Hiding,” which is “Given to Fly” only without the payoff. I do rather enjoy the silly dance song that has no title aside from a red dot (I like this pretentiousness), and I admire the guitar interplay at the start of “MFC,” but what’s with all the fadeouts?
Is the world for having this album? It is, I think it is! They are laughing, but they are indignant. They are friends of the family, and imagine our despair if we had tried to get them to go entirely. We mustn’t rush in before we know how the land lies, and we can always use an early beacon of general bitterness, to remind us of where we were and be a low burning candle to remind us of what unnatural light can be. “The first human face you see will knock you back 50%.” Ah, Pearl Jam! Ah, humanity!