Earnest but inescapable, passionate but mega-platinum, Pearl Jam have over the past five years been alternately championed as a new breed of sincere, Average Joe-type non-stars who just happen to sell millions of records, and skewered as a mutant strain of overblown, post-glam corporate cock-rockers who just happen to know a little about rough-edged indie aesthetics.
Just which of these two schools of thought is closer to the truth
depends almost entirely on the part of the Pearl Jam song you're
listening to. Eddie Vedder's golden baritone and almost saintly
sincerity make him one of the most powerful and distinctive figures in rock 'n roll, but his bandmates' inevitable lapses into guitar preening are a constant reminder that the group is often just a few evolutionary steps from the dinosaurs of AOR, or worse, the primordial soup of late '80s hair metal. Thus, the Pearl Jam Listening Experience is a difficult one -- great expectations quite frequently met and soured within the same three-to-five-minute songs.
"No Code," their latest, is no exception. Despite interesting forays
into such diverse styles as neo-country swing ("Around the Bend") and what can only be described as Peter Gabrielesque arena-pop drone (the first single, "Who You Are"), the album illustrates the frustrating dynamic that is Pearl Jam: For every moment of true inspiration, there are two of almost soulless riffage.
Tracks like "Hail, Hail" and "Habit" (the requisite anti-heroin rant)
are generally inoffensive but ultimately forgettable exercises in stale power chord progressions. The punk tempos that drive both songs seem forced in the hands of show off-y hacks like Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Mike McReady. Vedder's reedy John-Lydon-meets-Nick-Drake vocals brighten up "Hail, Hail" a bit, but his unthreatening growl on "Habit" comes off as little more than an affectation. Similarly, the harsh, brief "Lukin," which takes its cues from both Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" as well as the mid-80s D.C. punk rap of Beefeater, only clutters album space with mundane lyrics ("Knock on the door...open the fridge"), much like "Rats" from "Vs." or "Bugs" from "Vitalogy."
Elsewhere, "Red Mosquito" and "Present Tense" find Pearl Jam mining their classic-rock roots with swaggering abandon, resurrecting the guitar-driven dramas that may have served stadium rockers like Kansas and Boston well 20 years ago, but sound redundant, even embarrassing, today. "Who You Are" and "Smile" have similar arena-rock vibes, though in much different ways. "Who You Are" is an inexplicably upbeat bit of singalong world pop, complete with a tribal drumbeat, looped bassline and chanted backing vocal. "Smile" comes off as less an homage to Neil Young's loud-and-loose Crazy Horse style of late than an uninspired imitation of it, from the chunky guitar tone to the faux-simpleton lyrics ("Don't it make you smile/ When the sun don't shine"). Both songs meet the basic arena standard -- choruses remain lodged in your head long enough to still be there when Mom gets you home from the show -- but never really transcend it.
So what of St. Eddie, the man who gave us such emotional highs as
"Vs.'s" "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" ('I just want to scream, hello') and "Vitalogy's" "Corduroy" ('Everything has changed, absolutely nothing's changed')? On "No Code," moments like those are few and far between, as Vedder's potential incandescence is dulled by the canned flash of his bandmates.
Indeed, the few worthwhile cuts on this release -- "Sometimes," "Off He Goes" and "Around the Bend" -- are the simplest; not surprisingly, sole songwriting credit for those tracks goes to Vedder. "Sometimes," the album's restrained and atmospheric opener, is allowed to build up its own steam, and moves through a single, extended chorus ("Sometimes I rise, sometimes I fall...") to an unadorned ending. The "Harvest Moon"-inspired country swings of "Off He Goes" and "Around the Bend" are given a similar soft touch, and it works, because like Neil Young (his mentor), Vedder soars when unfocused jamming takes a back seat to rangy and distinctive solo vocals.
Maybe it's unfair to judge Pearl Jam the band by the same standards as Pearl Jam the voice. The no-name rock licks that Gossard and McReady seem genetically designed to crank out are pure session jack-off, but when Vedder is at his best, his vocal range and the passion he can muster therein are immense. And this is precisely why "No Code" is such a disappointment. It seems like Vedder's right in front of us, ready to astonish. His band just gets in the way.