By Mark Guarino
In the world of rock, a three-year war has not wrought angry voices, just quiet, sensitive ones. There is Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie, Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional and Sufjan Stevens, a songwriter in the midst of an ambitious album cycle about — brace yourself — the 50 states.
In this dullard climate arrives “Pearl Jam” (J Records) and it could not be sooner. In stores this week, this is the band’s eighth album and first in four years. That qualifies them as certified rock veterans yet these new songs do not show much age. Not since “Vitalogy” (Epic) in 1994 has the band sounded so engaged in making rock music that stands up to both their early achievements and the big issues of the day. The newfound muscle prevails throughout. Maybe it’s because there’s a war on, maybe it’s because they switched to a new label, or just maybe it’s because the band survived 16 years of fashions that, by now, have no relevance. Bands title albums after themselves for two reasons. One is because they’re stumped. Another is because they’re proud. In this case, put your money on the latter.
“Pearl Jam” is not perfect, yet you wouldn’t know it from the first five songs: “Life Wasted,” “World Wide Suicide,” “Comatose,” “Severed Hand,” “Marker in the Sand.” The assault illustrates why, in their record sale decline, the band still fills arenas in a moment’s notice. Fans know Pearl Jam can make even their weakest material scream with urgency. The double team of guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready do not mince notes, they are power players, combatants who use riffs and power chords that combine the cocksure flash of the guitar god bands of the 1970s with the aggression and darkened density of the grunge era of which they never quite fit.
The unfussy stomp of drummer Matt Cameron gives both guitarists ample room to swing — opener “Life Wasted” is an interchange between Gossard and McCready that pulls them together to thicken the momentum before pulling them apart to widen the space. On “Comatose,” Gossard packs miles of notes in just seconds but instead of tangling, they build higher to a breaking point, never collapsing upon their own weight.
Singer Eddie Vedder continues to be the band’s suffering servant, his voice channeling big picture angst. That does not translate so literally as it did on past complaints like “Bushleaguer.” Here, Vedder is less concerned with presidential potshots than he is with the residual effects of a war with no end. In these songs, the subject at hand is hometown grief. “Medals on a wooden mantle/next to a handsome face/that the president took for granted/writing checks that others pay,” he sings on “World Wide Suicide,” a song that far exceeds the constraints of a protest song. Anger becomes rage and rage transforms into madness, which might just be the point.
But if the media headlines only seem to indicate chaos building at home and abroad, these songs likewise loom with a particular menace. On “Severed Hand,” a soldier reports: “tried to walk, found a severed hand/recognized it from the wedding band,” Vedder sings, his voice eerily double tracked. “Come Back” is Vedder’s moment to step back and summon his inner soul singer. The song’s narrator is convinced her fallen soldier is a ghost. “Come the morning I could swear that you’re next to me,” he sings as notes from a guitar bend behind him, one to the other. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he answers, quietly.
“Pearl Jam” can be approached two ways: A successful rock album and a successful rock album lit with a political torch. For a time there, it looked like the band was barking from the sidelines. On this album, they sound in the thick of it, fighting to be heard. Aside from a few songs that are limp by comparison to what else is here, “Pearl Jam” is that soundtrack to today people will be combing through years from now, searching for what we were listening to while at war, and how it felt to believe in something better.