Wartime, for everything else that’s wrong with it, brings out the best in Pearl Jam: the power-chord brawn, contrary righteousness and metallic-KO songwriting sense. The band’s second and third albums, 1993’s bluntly titled Vs. and 1994’s Vitalogy, are as good as modern rock-in-opposition gets: shotgun guitars, incendiary bass and drums, and Eddie Vedder’s scalded-dog howl, all discharged in backs-to-the-wall fury and union.This album, Pearl Jam’s first studio release in four years and their best in ten, is more of that top electric combat.
With a difference. The Pearl Jam on Pearl Jam is not the band that famously responded to overnight platinum by going to war with the world. Vedder, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron are now fully at war in the world, unrepentant veterans of the campaign trail (the Vote for Change Tour) and right-wing crucifixion (the “Bushleaguer” uproar) who have made the most overtly partisan — and hopeful — record of their lives. For Vedder, the 2004 election was not a total loss. “Why swim the channel just to get this far?/Halfway there, why would you turn around?” he demands in the first song, “Life Wasted,” in a ragged, run-on bark. And it’s all forward ho from there. As immediate and despairing as breaking news from Baghdad — “World Wide Suicide” opens with a newspaper casualty report — Pearl Jam is also as big and brash in fuzz and backbone as Led Zeppelin’s Presence.
That’s not just rock-critic shorthand. However you define grunge music, Pearl Jam didn’t play it. They were, from jump street, a classic rock band, building their bawl with iron-guitar bones and an arena-vocal lust that came right from Zeppelin, early-Seventies Who and mid-Eighties U2 (with distortion instead of the Edge’s glass-guitar harmonics). But Pearl Jam have not been this consistently dirty and determined in the studio since they subbed for Crazy Horse on Neil Young’s 1995 Mirror Ball. I own two complete tours’ worth of Pearl Jam’s official-bootleg concert CDs, and this record’s five-song blastoff (“Life Wasted,” “World Wide Suicide,” “Comatose,” “Severed Hand” and “Marker in the Sand”) is right up there in punch and crust with my favorite nights in that live series (Seattle, 11/6/00, and New Orleans, 4/8/03, to name two). And whenever the guitars take over, which is a lot — Gossard and McCready’s slugging AC/DC-like intro to “Life Wasted”; McCready’s wild wah-wah ride in “Big Wave”; the way he cracks Vedder’s gloom in “Parachutes” like heat lightning — it reminds me that Gossard and McCready deserved to be on our 2003 “Greatest Guitarists” list. Permit me to admit it here: I screwed up.
That’s more confession than you’ll ever hear in the Bush White House. But talk-show pit bulls will be disappointed to find that Vedder doesn’t waste his breath naming names here, except for a glancing reference to “the president” in “World Wide Suicide.” There is blame, but it’s spread all around. “Now you got both sides/Claiming killing in God’s name/But God is nowhere to be found, conveniently,” Vedder sings in “Marker in the Sand,” from inside Gossard and McCready’s crossfire and the saturation bombing of Ament and Cameron. There is dread too — lots of it. “Army Reserve” is a midtempo elegy for the real Army Reserve, the wives and children who serve in worry, behind the lines. (The dark harmonies crowding Vedder’s low, grainy vocal feel like ghosts in waiting.) And “Unemployable” is just half a story, with a soaring-melancholy chorus. The song ends before the guy with the pink slip can find a new job. But Vedder’s opening scene — the fist with the ring that says jesus saves, flying with helpless anger into a metal locker — is lesson enough. In multinational capitalism run riot, the bottom line doesn’t care about religion or party line. We’re all expendable.
And we’re all accountable. The politics on Pearl Jam are not those of right or left but of engagement and responsibility. In “Life Wasted,” Vedder at least partly mocks his old self, the one that wore success and the leverage that came with it like sackcloth: “Darkness comes in waves, tell me/Why invite it to stay?” But there is only determined optimism in Pearl Jam‘s superb finish, “Inside Job.” The song starts quietly, then climbs and peaks like a combination of “Stairway to Heaven” and the Who’s “The Song Is Over” — a mirror image of Vedder’s stumble through each line from night into light. “I will not lose my faith,” he promises under thunderclap guitars, with such assurance that even if you don’t agree with anything else on this record, you believe him.