They don’t call it the gilded cage for nothing. The idea of rock gods bitching about all the dumb, demeaning baggage that comes with megastardom might seem lame, even insulting, to anyone who’s never tasted any kind of big time. But the invasive, suffocating quality of blind idolatry; the hard slap of snide, contemptuous backlash; the surreal expectations of a business culture grown fat and smug on someone else’s desperate, poetic labors — that shit is all very real. Besides, heated, bitter, even irrational complaint is one thing. Self-pity is quite another, and Pearl Jam — for better or worse, the poster boys of postmodern grousing — have never stooped that low.
If anything, Pearl Jam are vigilant and hopeful — if sometimes inconsistent — pragmatists. They’re empowered by platinum and unembarrassed by their sense of mission, willing to risk tripping over their own hard line to make a vital point. And they’re not so self-righteous as to deny that, yes, success has its privileges. For example, if you can’t put out a glorious, guiltless, mad-blend mess of tunes and weird tangents like No Code when you’re at the top, what’s the point of swimming through all the sewage to get there?
Actually, No Code — Pearl Jam’s fourth album, not counting Mirror Ball, last year’s collaboration with Neil Young — is abrupt in its mood swings almost to the point of vertigo. In the first song, “Sometimes,” Eddie Vedder sings as if he’s locked in a confessional, talking to God and wrestling with his own bruised, confused, irritated ego (“See my part/Devote myself/My small self/Like a book amongst the many on a shelf”) in the pregnant atmosphere of Jeff Ament’s gently zooming bass and drummer Jack Irons’ lightly hissing cymbals. Later, Vedder rips into the 62-second blitz “Lukin” (a nod to Mudhoney bassist Matt Lukin?) with such blurred agitation that the words just come out like bloody spittle. The Indo-Bo Diddley glow of “Who You Are,” a buoyant electric variation on Vedder’s recent collaborations with Pakistani vocal god Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, melts into the black, choleric-guitar clamor of “In My Tree.” To get to the sweet, protective ardor of Vedder’s closing carol, “Around the Bend,” you’ve got to downshift from guitarist Stone Gossard’s punk-pop romp “Mankind” and soak in the echo pool of the narration-with-chant piece “I’m Open.”
The cumulative impact of all this twist and shout doesn’t hit you straightaway. No Code doesn’t quite have the concentrated, brawling force of Vs. or the focused sweep of Vitalogy. The album is certainly a big, awkward leap from the burnished, arena-ripe sheen of Ten. But in its own brash, off-center way, No Code is a real gas — charged with pungent declaration and heaving guitars; warm and even a little wry in low throttle; and elastic in its attack and intimate in its tension. It is the kind of impulsive, quixotic, provocative ruckus that has become rare in a modern-rock mainstream largely distinguished by weary fatalism and anxiety over quick career burnout. As a record, as a declaration of honor, No Code basically means no rule books, no limits and, above all, no fear.
That doesn’t mean no fun — “Smile” sounds so much like a Neil Young With Crazy Horse outtake that you’ll initially think someone goofed at the pressing plant — or no questions. “Is there room enough for both of us?/ Both of us apart?” Vedder queries with rubbed-raw enunciation in “Hail, Hail,” measuring the strength and resilience of good, honest affection against the staccato punch of Gossard’s and Mike McCready’s guitars and Irons’ urgent, emphatic drumming. Originally, in the Ten days, I thought Vedder rendered too much of his disquiet in mumbled, indistinct angst, more implied than indicting argument. I was wrong. He may sound like he’s just had his tonsils torn out in “Habit,” but it suits the dirty, breathless crush of the music and the schizo vigor — part outraged disbelief, part acidic wit — of Vedder’s crusted pleading: “Another habit like an unwanted friend/I’m so happy with my righteous self.”
Contrary to his reputation, Vedder isn’t a complainer, certainly not on record. When he declares, “All hail the lucky ones/I refer to those in love,” in “Hail, Hail,” he’s not being a wretched smartass — he means it. If Vedder can’t help but strive for things that seem to be just outside his reach, well, that’s hardly a character flaw. It’s a sign of life.
So is pain. At first, “Off He Goes” sounds like another page torn from the Neil Young hymnal. Its elegant, acoustic simplicity is deceiving, though. With a humor and confidence that he rarely gets credit for, Vedder describes a man not unlike himself — at least, his public image — but from the point of view of an old, puzzled friend: “Know a man/His face seems pulled and tense…. So I approach with tact/Suggest that he should relax.” In the guy’s “perfectly unkempt clothes … his perfectly unkempt hope,” Vedder tartly nails the narcissism that is definitely part of making theater out of hurt. He also points out with quiet insistence that in misery, as in much of life, context is everything: “For he still smiles/And he’s still strong/Nothing much has changed except the surrounding bullshit/That has grown.”
No Code sticks out of the surrounding bullshit — major-label rock albums that are really just two-year marketing exercises in disguise; the ideological bickering in the indie sector that makes a day in the Russian Parliament seem like a love feast — with roughhouse aplomb. It may or may not end up on Top 100 lists in 20 years’ time, but it sounds right for now, a midterm report from a band in fine, reckless fettle. “Are we getting something out of this/All-encompassing trip?” Vedder wonders in “Present Tense” as the band summons up the grace and force of Jimi Hendrix’s freak-flag anthem “If 6 Was 9.” That depends on what you’re willing to put into it.