For Eddie Vedder, rock radio must seem like a fun-house mirror, a medium in which the most easily caricatured aspects of his vexed bellow are distorted by the Scott Stapps of the world into messianic bombast. You can’t blame the guy for feeling the need to chill out. On Riot Act, Vedder cautiously mutters his vocals as though a baby is asleep in the next room. Even when he takes a swipe at the “Bush Leaguer” in the Oval Office, he sounds too weary to work up the contempt he finds the president so far beneath.
Despite some clever sonic choices — Stone Gossard’s guitar imitates a malfunctioning modem on “Wanted to Get Right,” and Achtung Baby delay effects are sprinkled throughout — the band has eschewed the experimental tweaks producer Tchad Blake brought to 2000’s Binaural. The familiarity of this straightforward tumble sounds tired — the musicians struggle to put their backs and hearts into the Mudhoney-ish rocker “Save You.” But like Neil Young at his most deliberately despondent, Pearl Jam sound purposefully tired. Songs such as “Can’t Keep” fall subtly into their choruses rather than explode into anthems because Vedder and his mates are too honest to indulge in the showboating of today’s power balladeers. Anyone can fake a heroic stand in the studio. It’s more challenging to quietly voice your need to take a step back.