What separates a musical has-been from a timeless legend? What propels an artist from aged irreverence to celebrated survivor?
It’s a question worth musing as a generation of legendary rockers prepare to stand down. With the likes of The Rolling Stones and The Who locked in the throes of a seemingly perpetual last hurrah, the music industry seems in a mighty hurry to anoint a new generation of irrefutable icons to fill gray-haired stadiums in decades to come. And no one has benefited more from this goldrush than Pearl Jam, perhaps the first 90s survivors to be enshrined in rock immortality alongside 80s-born icons Guns n’ Roses, Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
It’s a neat place to be. While mere mortal artists are expected to both grow and gamble with every passing release, from fabled heritage acts critics expect little more than reassuringly familiar retreads.
Which is why calling their 11th studio outing, Gigaton, the band’s best in more than a dozen years is the most backhanded compliment.
Pearl Jam's last two records were uninspired
Born of the same Seattle scene which gave us Nirvana and Soundgarden, the quintet, now aged a collective 275, have released just two albums in that time: Backspacer (2009) and Lightning Bolt (2013), both un-electrifying outings that sold to a dedicated fanbase and added a few more tracks to a live setlist which still leans heavily on 1991 breakout, Ten.
The band’s own anti-hype seems to suggest idleness is the core culprit of Gigaton’s six-plus-year gestation period. In early 2019, bassist Jeff Ament admitted the band had entered a recording studio just “four or five” times in the preceding two years.
Perhaps a lost muse was finally recovered, because gravelly growler Eddie Vedder appears as engaged and energised as he’s ever been in the 21st century.
"Whoever said it's all been said, gave up on satisfaction", roars the frontman on opener Who Ever Said, setting his stall as a songwriter who both refuses to be silenced, yet is more enthralled by his influences than ever, making an apparent nod to The Stones.
"The Kids are Alright," Vedder croons later on the languid, bluesy, acoustic solo Comes then Goes, name-checking his heroes The Who.
The triumphant return of Eddie Vedder?
Flitting from indignant angst to doomsday prophecy, Vedder’s words cast a longer shadow over Gigaton than perhaps any record ever before. Those quivering, syllabic exertions of old – those oft-impersonated impassioned cries and animalistic grunts, devoid of meaning but so imbued with feeling – have been overthrown by an unschooled yet writerly spew of images and ambiguities.
"Seven seas are raising, forever future's fading out … It's gonna take much more than ordinary love to lift this up," he crows on eco-anthem Retrograde, over Mike McCready's open-tuned acoustic. "While the government thrives on discontent . . . proselytising and profitising as our will all but disappears," Vedder sighs, over his own earnest pump organ wheezes, a track later on solemn closer River Cross.
The sprawling, Springsteen-esque standout Seven O'Clock offers a shimmering plea for action in the face of a world gone wrong. "Moved on from my despondency and left it in the bed ... For this is no time for depression of self-indulgent hesitance." Instead of heart-on-sleeve emotional exorcisms, the 55-year-old Vedder is a wisened windswept searcher, who's travelled the world, seen it all, but still can't quite believe it.
Since Vitalogy's twin parental portraits Better Man and Nothingman, Pearl Jam albums have always made space for these mellower moments, but on Gigaton, slow or mid tempo material makes up a whole half of the tracklist. More remarkably, it's the rockier half of the set which falls short.
Regrettably, the influence of once-principle riffmaster Stone Gossard – architect of stadium-sized heyday anthems Alive, Once, Even Flow and Animal – is almost non-existent. Instead, Vedder is left too often to pick up the slack, a singer-songwriter hacking hooks from thrashed chords, Never Destination one trashy punk stomper too many.
Notably, the whole band take credit for the successful experiment of jolting, electronica-spiked single Dance of the Clairvoyants; self-help plea Alright is also refreshingly undercut by sampled electric bleeps calling to mind the well-lit insomnia of cross-continental travel. The latter is one of two standout contributions from bassist Ament, who also supplies the metallic funk-rock strut Quick Escape – in which a vitriolic Vedder finally spells out the target of his contempt, travelling all the way to Mars in search of "a place Trump hasn't .... up yet".
Tallied up, it’s an uneven set which sometimes reaches further than it grasps. And yet Pearl Jam’s greatest artistic progress was conversely made, in a classic chicken-egg conundrum, as their popularity waned in the late 90s – a mid-career run of four loose, sonically confused records bookended by 1996’s No Code and 2003’s Riot Act, made without airwaves or stadiums in mind, but which rewarded deeper listening and reflection.
The safer arena rock sound of 2006’s self-titled LP then appeared as a self-conscious reboot, the band reckoning and readying themselves for the late-career heritage rock status they’ve aged too easily into.
Gigaton goes some way to reconciling these identities, avoiding the most obvious, low-hanging fruit while striving after the lyrical, rather than musical relevance – making, perhaps, the only dignified statement a group of white mid-50s millionaires can make. It’s the band’s best record in a dozen years.