Photo Credit: Danny Clinch
In his final major interview Kurt Cobain described Pearl Jam as a “safe” rock band. “They’re a pleasant rock band that everyone likes,” he claimed. The last part of that assessment at least was probably correct at the time: their 1991 debut album Ten eventually sold thirty million copies worldwide, making Pearl Jam not just the most commercially successful act to emerge from the Seattle scene or even the whole early Nineties alternative music boom, but one of the era’s defining cultural touchstones.
Yet, despite Cobain’s insinuation that frontman Eddie Vedder and his bandmates were rock’s biggest brown nosers, at the height of their popularity Pearl Jam suddenly ceased doing music videos. This was an undeniably risky move (particularly given how much MTV exposure had fueled their success). Their second album Vs. sold seven million copies anyway (it’s also arguably their best, despite the continuing mythology behind Ten), but the gradual decline in their album sales continued, even though every Pearl Jam studio release since 2000 has charted in the Top Five and the band has remained a major live draw.
So is Pearl Jam satisfied with their current position, or would they rather be back at the top of the heap? The title of their eleventh studio album Gigaton – a word that means “a unit of explosive force equal to one billion tons of TNT” – kind of indicates the latter (of course, it could certainly be intended as irony). If nothing else, the first single “Dance of the Clairvoyants” – between the drum machine opening, bouncy bassline that’s a distant cousin of the Breeders’ “Cannonball”, and the overall Kraftwerk-goes-Goth feel of the synth-heavy track – suggests that after nearly three decades Pearl Jam is still interested in surprising people (there may be an additional surprise for many in that the song is pretty damn good).
Atmospheric “Seven O’Clock” is a nice subtle but effective mid-tempo mix of Eighties hooks complete with a tripped-out synth instrumental break. Opening track “Who Ever Said” is certainly closer to familiar Pearl Jam, but the five-minute-plus track combines a proven hard rock approach with synths and a compelling breakdown for the bridge. “Superblood Woolfmoon” is a lot closer to the band’s classic sound, though perhaps interpreted through early 2000s garage rock like the White Stripes. “Never Destination” could be a leftover from their underrated 1998 album Yield (although with its early Seventies-ish feel, Elton John could almost tell everybody that this is his song).
The tight, kinetic “Take the Long Way” leads up to a satisfying sing-along chorus, even if the lyrics veer a bit too close to cliché (“I always take the long way // That leads me back to you”). Pleasant, relaxed folky “Buckle Up” unsnaps to reveal the greatly haunting theme of a child becoming a killer (“The drapes pull back // To reveal her wound // Her boy on her lap // A murderer groomed”). Pearl Jam, of course, has long explored the theme of childhood psychological damage going back to “Jeremy”, one of their defining works. The irony, at least musically, in “Buckle Up” is compounded with an instrumental break of kazoos, the innocent-yet-disturbing cheap plastic instrument from everyone’s own childhood (there’s no “kazoo” credit in the liner notes, but they sure sound like kazoos). This is not the only unusual instrumentation on Gigaton: album closer “River Cross” features Vedder playing pump organ (whatever the heck that is) on a poignant, melancholy epic ode to Eighties alternative bands like U2, the Alarm and Midnight Oil.
Vedder and Pearl Jam first introduced themselves to the world with the declaration “Hey, I oh, I’m still alive,” on their 1991 debut single. This notion would take on a new meaning within just a few years after an alarmingly high number of the band’s contemporaries – Alice in Chains, Hole, the Smashing Pumpkins, Blues Traveler, Blind Melon and of course Nirvana – would experience a casualty due to the Nineties drug epidemic (Pearl Jam themselves were a spin-off from Mother Love Bone, who lost their original lead singer the same way). While certainly not a late-career masterpiece, Gigaton nonetheless shows that Pearl Jam are not only still alive, but still kicking as well.